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Wild Horses in a Georgia Wilderness? Cumberland Island National Seashore Completes Annual Count

Wild horses at Cumberland Island

Wild horses at Cumberland Island National Seashore. NPS photo.

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.


Reminds me of the "wild" ponies at Chincoteague NWR, Va.

We saw the horses during our visit to Cumberland Island last year (see pictures on the flickr site). They were beautiful. It was wonderful seeing them run free on the beach. Could have watched them for hours.

Thanks to Jim Burnett for bringing attention to the feral livestock on Cumberland Island. Some points need clarification.
Why even count the feral horses? These are exotic species not native to this continent and do immense damage to the island ecosystem. And likewise, the island does them much damage.
While horses may have been on the island for centuries, the early ones were not feral. The Carnegies brought in mustangs from Arizona and released them in the 1920's, and they form the basis of the herd today.
The NPS already knows how detrimental these herds of livestock are to the island, but so far they have ignored their responsibility as stewards of the island's ecosystems.

v.j -

Having worked on Assateague I wondered the same thing. The only reasoning my brain could come up with was politics. The public would have a fit if those horses were removed and it is also part of the history of the area. There comes a point when the NPS has to decide to recognize the historical and political aspect of the park or focus on the ecological. I know on Assateague an EIS was performed and they found that the island could support about 100 horses without the island being impacted too heavily. On the VA side the pony round-up and auction helps keep the levels down and on the MD side they use birth control. It sounds like they may be trying to do the same thing on Cumberland - count to find out how many horses there are and how many the island could handle.

I'm a biologist and I am all for saving the world and keeping natural systems natural, but I'm also a girl who never got over my love for ponies and I would be sorely upset if the NPS got rid of the horses.

HA! The captcha today is "lookout pay". Great for a fee collector!

I would like to do some further research on the repercussions and impacts feral horses have on barrier island systems. Does anyone have leads on insightful primary literature (i.e. scientific journals) that focus on these issues? Any help would be appreciated.

My wife and I just completed visting Cumberland this past weekend. We are both have BSA's in Animal Science and are very familiar with equine nutrition. We also both have master's degrees in agriculture. In addition, we have both been involved in the horse industry since we were children. I agree that the horses have a big impact environmentally on the island. However, my biggest concern is the horses' health. Both of us were disgusted with the body scores or basically body condition of all the horses. Most of them were between a 2 and a 3. The ideal condition score for a horse is a 5 which means it is neither too fat or too lean. A 1 on the score is a horse near death and a 10 is obese. Many of the 2's were mares with babies on their side. During this time the mare needs exceptional nutitrtion which obviously is not provided. I believe that some type of control needs to be implemented. My wife and I discussed several options and the most effective seems to be a reproductive control program through stallion castration. There would be a lot of planning involved but it would not be a long term project financially. I agree that the horses provide an attraction and they most likely need to stay. But, I don't agree with a hands-off operation.

Shouldn't they be removed like the Trout in the Colorado and the Mules of the Grand Canyon? I mean really.

The ideal condition scores you express are ones developed by humans, not mother nature. We have forced horses to live in our world and therefore subjected them to our rules and as a result our domesticated horses suffer from colics, laminitis, Cushings and a host of other diseases. These wild horses have managed to survive by some accounts as to their origin, for over 500 hundred years. They survive in balance with the rest of the eco system on the island. I doubt very, very seriously if they have impacted the island in a negative manner. Mother Nature has a way of keeping things in order...survival of the fittest and adaptation by the species etc. If the condition of these horses shock you, then you would also be shocked by the condition of desert bred Arabians.

Ancestors of the modern horse were indeed on this continent and disappeared ...most likely walking across to the European Continent during the ice age. This is like saying that Native Americans, of which I am proud to be, are not indigenous to our hemisphere because we only showed up here 13,000 years ago.

Horses are one of the most adaptable species of animals and have retained their feral instincts even after thousands of years of domestication. This is combination with their intelligence, has allowed them to survive the harsh, sparse conditions of the island for centuries. These horses, along with the Mustangs and desert bred Arabians and the other wild ponies up the east coast are tough, durable and strong.

One more comment, the mare with the foal at her side. That baby would not be alive and thriving if the dam did not have sustainable nutrition.

Politics is not what will force the herd to be left alone...but politics will surely result in their removal.

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