COROLLA, N.C. — On a stretch of barrier island without paved roads, some of the last wild horses in the Eastern U.S. are seeing their world get smaller each year.
A boom in vacation homes in the last 25 years in this remote place has seen the descendants of colonial Spanish mustangs confined to a 7,500-acre sanctuary on the northern tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks. And now the herd itself may shrink along with its habitat.
A plan backed by the federal government would see the herd reduced from about 115 horses today to no more than 60 in a bid to stop the animals, designated North Carolina's state horse this year, from competing with federally protected birds for increasingly hard-to-come-by resources.
The Fish and Wildlife Service says the plan will reduce harmful behavior by a species it considers a nuisance. But residents who rely on the horses to bring in tourist dollars or who simply cherish the mustangs as a symbol of the country's spirit worry it could bring about the collapse of the herd through hereditary diseases and other complications of a shallow gene pool.
"The American wild horse is disappearing from our country," said Karen McCalpin, executive director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund, a nonprofit group that manages the herd. "To me, they're as much a symbol of freedom as the bald eagle."