Wild horses in a NPS site in Georgia? That may come as a surprise, but they've been in the area for centuries. The annual census of wild horses at Cumberland Island National Seashore has just been completed. How's the park's population of untamed equines doing these days?
Cumberland Island National Seashore, on the Georgia coast, includes one of the largest undeveloped barrier islands in the world. The park is also home to one of the largest maritime forests remaining in the United States, one of the largest wilderness areas in a National Seashore on the east coast, and a herd of feral, free-ranging horses.
So, how do you count wild horses in such an area? You rely on a group of dedicated volunteers.
According to the park,
The volunteer group consists of members who typically participate each year and know the census protocol and routes, which adds consistency and validity to the results. One volunteer has participated for over 10 years. A total of 20 routes are surveyed during the two-day period. Data collected includes the number of horses seen, sex, age class, location, and habitat. Information is stored in a database for comparison to previous years.
Thirty volunteers participated in this year’s census and counted 121 horses. Over the previous 11 years, the census totals have ranged from a low of 120 to a high of 154. While it is not possible to count every horse on the island, the numbers can be used primarily as an index to abundance.
Since there is consistency in the time of year of the census, tidal conditions, routes, survey times, and participants, the data generated can be considered an accurate portrayal of long-term trends in the population. For those wanting a total number of horses on the island, another 50 or so horses could probably be added to the number generated by the census to get a closer estimate.
The presence of horses on Cumberland Island can be traced back to the 1700s, although it's believed the animals likely occurred in the area even earlier, during the Spanish missionary period in the 1500s. The current herd has a genetic makeup closely related to several breeds of common domestic horses, which is likely the result of post-1900 introductions of other animals to the island.
Monitoring of the herd by the park began in 1981, and the staff plans to continue the annual census and increase research to "evaluate horse-related impacts on the numerous island vegetative communities."
Visitors are reminded these are feral horses and should be treated as wild animals. Since these are free-ranging animals, it's not possible to accurately predict their location, but if you're in the park and hope to see some of the horses, the park notes they can often be seen around the Dungeness ruins area.
The park website includes information to help you plan a visit to Cumberland Island, including a map and directions to the area.