• info@wildcumberland.org
  • PO Box 872 Scottdale, GA 30079

Feral Horses

A lawsuit was filed on April 12, 2023 in US District Court (Atlanta) relating to the feral horses of Cumberland Island. 
  • The suit seeks to bring short and long term relief to the horses – and to the island’s natural and wilderness resources – by humanely transitioning the horses from the island.

  • The defendants are listed as follows: Interior Secretary Deb Haaland; Director of the NPS South Atlantic and Gulf Region Mark Foust; Cumberland Island National Seashore Superintendent Gary Ingram; Georgia Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Mark Williams; and Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tyler Harper. 

  • Federal officials have 60 days to respond, while state officials have 21 days. 

Wild Cumberland believes that good stewardship requires us to show compassion to these animals. 

Good stewardship also requires us to demonstrate respect for our ecosystems, particularly as we face unprecedented anthropogenic changes.

Wild Cumberland believes it should NOT take a lawsuit for the NPS to do the right thing. The agency has all the data it needs to create a path forward. Management should (and could) have already fulfilled its responsibility to the Seashore, its Wilderness, and the public. 

We encourage you to let the NPS know if you agree. You can email the Regional Director directly at Mark_Foust@nps.govand the park superintendent at CUIS_Superintendent@nps.gov.

Cumberland Island is the only barrier island in Georgia with feral horses. Despite their popularity with tourists, they have caused serious damage to the island’s native ecosystem.

  • Horses trample and graze upon key plant species. This includes Spanish moss (Tilandsia usneoides) and smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora), the primary plant of the marshland. This grazing reduces the density of grasses in the marsh, which are crucial for trapping and holding sediments. As erosion increases, the marsh is more severely affected by storms.

  • They feed upon sea oats (Uniola paniculata), which provide stabilization for coastal dunes and provide nesting areas for a number of endangered and protected animals.
  • Feral horses that eat hundreds of pounds of vegetation each year also produce an excessive amount of waste, which is unable to be cycled quickly enough into the ecosystem. Effects on the island’s fresh water supply have not been thoroughly studied, but island clam beds have been closed to public harvest because of waste. Water at the swimming beach is never tested, but is visible at the water line.
  • Their heavy weight and hooves compress and churn delicate marshland: the homes of fiddler crabs, mussels, and nesting shorebirds. Their presence alone can frighten birds from their nests, and their hooves decimate shorebird eggs.

They do not deserve to suffer

Thriving in a non-native environment is difficult for these grassland mammals; their flowing manes and long-haired tails can be deadly in vine-tangled forests, where they are snared and held until death.

Open expanses of salt marsh may seem potentially hospitable, but the weight of a horse is distributed on four small points that offer very little support in its soft mud. Once a horse sinks belly-deep, escape is unlikely; the tide, however, is inevitable. Many have drowned, held fast by the mud.

Hear from Carol Ruckdeschel about the feral horses...

Media Links

  1. Hear from J. Ryan Chastain on TikTok! – Cumberland Island Horses need help!

  2. The Current – The Trouble with Horses on Cumberland Island

  3. National Parks Traveler – The Trouble with Horses on Cumberland Island

Photo Documentation

Get the facts

The National Park Service does not produce annual reports on the horse population (including any encephalitis data), or offer any reports related to staff or visitor injuries. However, it does estimate the herd’s population hovers between 150-200 animals.

In 2016, the NPS did release a brochure to educate the public on some aspects of the horses.

What you can see

The damage from feral horses is visible to the naked eye, if you know what you’re looking for. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find an ecosystem on the island that isn’t directly impacted by these animals. Learn how to identify it yourself:

  • Horses have teeth on both their upper and lower jaws, so they ‘cut’ plants on branches, stems, or leaves. Look for clean cuts of vegetation in a vertical swath, over a broad area. You may also observe the ‘browse line’, which is a horizontal line of decreased vegetation at a consistent height – it will correlate with average horse height.
  • Visitors commonly observe the island’s horses concentrated in marshland and beach areas. As grassland animals, they prefer wide open spaces; the result is the degradation of stabilizing marsh grasses and delicate dunes as they forage for food.
  • Piles of dung cover the island from the moment you step off the ferry until you reach the beach. Besides the overall breathtaking beauty of the island, it’s possibly the most commonly-recalled memory by visitors.

What can you do?

The “wild” horses of Cumberland Island may be a romantic notion for visitors, but they threaten the very ecosystems that create it.

The National Park Service does not produce any reports on the horse population (including encephalitis), or offer any data related to staff or visitor injuries.

  • Document your concerns and observations — share them with Wild Cumberland and the NPS.
  • Demand the NPS document and manage the feral horse population with transparency and in accordance with their governing responsibility.

Click to View PDF.

Please take action on this issue by sending a note to our National Park Service representatives.

Action Needed to Remove the Feral Horses

Dear Superintendent,

The damage that this species has done - and will continue to do - until it has been eradicated from the Island is devastating.

These animals do not deserve to suffer in a non-native environment simply so that onlookers can gawk at them.

I urge you to explore solutions to the feral horse population of Cumberland Island. NPS must take seriously its charge to educate the public and protect its resources.

Your office has a responsibility to pursue long-term solutions to eliminate the population in a humane, ethical way.

The survival of Cumberland Island’s native ecology depends on it.

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