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Management of Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island is an isolated ecosystem with minimal viable resources and extreme competition. Many animals live off the fruits that Cumberland bares but, let us look at feral horses, feral hogs, and deer. These three relatively large herbivores are grazers and browsers that are competing for many of the same resources. These three herbivores are living in a resource deprived area that lacks predators or any other source of population control, except disease. All of these animals are suffering due to the lack of resources driving them to search for food in the marshes and on the beaches.

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Two of theses three animals are not native to Cumberland Island. Horses and hogs were brought to Cumberland hundreds of years ago and are terrorizing its primitive, naturally functioning ecosystems of which other fauna depend. The National Park Service has managed Cumberland for more than 30 years and has continuously failed its obligation to uphold federal laws, NPS policy, and Cumberland Island’s Management Plan. At a time when a new management plan is being drafted by the NPS, this paper has been written to explore the management of Cumberland Island and its future.

Along the Atlantic Coast of Georgia, there are great barrier islands protecting the mainland and sheltering the Atlantic Intercostals Waterway. It is along these waters that Cumberland Island National Seashore is located. Almost 18 miles long, the park covers 36,415 acres (Seabrook 35). One of the oldest barrier islands on the Atlantic Coast and with a landmass larger than Manhattan Island, Cumberland Island National Seashore is blessed with rich soil and a number of natural primitive ecosystems within the confines of its shores (35). Fertile and critical saltwater marshes, estuaries, fresh water ponds, forests of moss cover oak, massive dunes, and clean sand beaches can all be found within the island’s boundaries.

Cumberland’s natural habitat and biodiversity is being threatened by feral horses and hogs that were introduced to the island by humans. Animals, which were once domesticated, but have since reverted to a state of nature, are termed to be “feral”. There are feral dogs, cats, cattle, donkeys, and, in the case of Cumberland Island, feral hogs and horses. These animals are not wild in the sense that they are part of the naturally occurring fauna. However, they do display the behavior of what are termed wild animals or wildlife. Feral animals, because they do not occur naturally within a particular ecosystem, can drastically alter that ecosystem and in some instances threaten its very existence by harming or eliminating key indigenous plant and animal species (Housten 205). Such is the case on Cumberland Island, where feral hogs and horses threaten the diversity and long-term viability of the island’s natural resources (Seabrook 332-335).

It appears that horses and hogs were introduced to many of Georgia’s barrier islands by Spanish explorers and missionaries more than 400 years ago (Seabrook 332-333). However, the Spanish were not frequent visitors to the islands and the Native Americans living there did not find the horses particularly useful, so it is thought that the earliest introduction of horses did not survived (333). When the English began settling Cumberland in the 1700’s, they also brought horses with them. By 1788, it was reported that there were free-roaming horses on the island (333). Indeed, General Nathaniel Greene wrote in 1785 of at least 200 feral horses on Cumberland (333). The National Park Service (NPS) acquired Cumberland Island in 1972 and has not introduced any additional horses (334). However, even as recently as the early 1990′s, four Arabian horses were brought to the island by a resident in order to improve the stock of Cumberland’s horses (334).

In 1969, Hilton Head developer Charles Fraser envisioned a copy of the South Carolina resort on Cumberland Island. When construction of a 5,000-foot long airstrip began, a massive movement to save the island started (Seabrook 235). In 1972, the Carnegie family, other retained right holders and The Mellon Foundation, working in close cooperation with environmentalists and the federal government, bought most of the private land on the island and donated it to the National Park Service (220-243). Cumberland Island National Seashore was born. In 1982, retained rights holders on Cumberland Island worked together with Congress to delegate much of the seashore and a large portion of the maritime forest as a wilderness area (225-226). Designating the land as wilderness area meant that the primitive natural ecosystems on Cumberland would be protected by the Wilderness Act of 1963.

Feral horse damage to Cumberland’s flora and fauna is destroying different ecosystems on the island. Cumberland Island’s feral horses graze heavily on the smooth cord grasses Spartina alterniflora, the primary plant of the tidal areas on the mainland side of the island (Turner 55). Feral horse impacts also threaten Cumberland Island’s dune system by reducing dune stabilizing plants such as sea oats (56). Other noted impacts of feral horses on Cumberland include consumption of all Spanish moss within reach, negative effects on amphibians, disruption of nesting sea turtles, disturbance of brooding shore birds and damage to archeological sites and artifacts (56-57).

Likewise, feral hogs have had adverse effects on Cumberland’s ecosystems. The foraging activities of feral hogs, especially rooting activities, have greatly disturbed the island’s various plant communities (Seabrook 335). Feral hogs have been found to feed heavily on long leaf pine seedlings, affecting the regeneration of this valuable key plant species (335). The disruption of the island’s flora also directly affects the island’s fauna dependent on those various plant communities for food, shelter, and nesting (335). The diet of feral hogs includes both invertebrates and vertebrates. Feral hogs also like eggs, including those of ground nesting birds and the federally protected loggerhead sea turtle Caretta caretta (335).

Grazing in the marshes and dunes greatly reduces the density of the grasses. This negatively affects the marshes ability to trap and hold sediments. This inability to trap sediment can lead to increased erosion and damage from storms. The overall effect is the loss of the marsh. The grasses on the dunes are known as sea oats. Sea oats are the master dune builders. Because of their vital role in building and stabilizing dunes, sea oats are protected by law. There is a stiff fine for picking or otherwise damaging the plants.

Mentioned earlier, were the impacts of both horses and hogs on the Loggerhead Sea Turtle population. This particular species of sea turtle is on the Threatened Species List and is federally protected. The Endangered Species Act was enacted by Congress in 1973 to, “provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, and to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species …” In 1995, finding nesting of loggerheads in Georgia inspired conservation measures to protect the existing population. The NPS in conjunction with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), adopted the comprehensive Management Plan for the Protection of Nesting Loggerhead Sea Turtles and Their Habitat in Georgia. The Management Plan found that “every clutch of eggs is important to the survival of a threatened or endangered species. Management is required to maximize the reproductive effort of Loggerhead sea turtle until such species can be down listed to a more stable management category.”
Under the ESA and the Management Plan adopted by the NPS and the USFWS, any threat to the existence of the turtle population must be controlled and eliminated. This includes the foraging activities of invasive species like feral animals.

The Cumberland Island Wilderness was created by Congress on September 8, 1982. The management plan directs the NPS to administer the Cumberland Island Wilderness in accordance with the provisions of the federal Wilderness Act. The Wilderness Act is founded on two distinct elements: 1) the absence of human structures, settlements, roads, and other evidence of human activities, and 2) the presence of an undisturbed, healthy, and naturally functioning ecology. Cumberland island wilderness area has a road running through it, 5 houses that are still inhabited, and feral animals that are destroying its healthy naturally functioning ecosystem. The Wilderness Act requires the National Park Service to manage wilderness areas such as the Cumberland Island Wilderness to preserve both the undisturbed, natural appearance of the wilderness and the ecological health of the wilderness. Moreover, it has been suggested that the Wilderness Act’s mandate to preserve the wilderness character of an area is being overlooked. The statement “protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions” seems to require the National Park Service to remove all exotic animals such as Cumberland’s feral animals from the wilderness area given the harm these invasive, once domesticated, animals are causing to the island’s biodiversity and ecosystems.

The law in Georgia concerning feral animals is ambiguous at best. Over twenty- two statutes relate in some way to feral animals, particularly feral hogs. For instance, a feral hog is defined separately as being “any member of the family Suidae which is normally considered domestic but which is living in a wild state and cannot be claimed in private ownership.” So the feral hog is considered a “domestic” or “non-game species” and as a “wild species”. State law prohibits the killing or capturing of all “non-game species”. These laws should also apply to the feral hog as a “non-game species” but, the state of Georgia both promotes and regulates the hunting and killing of feral hogs much as it does other “game animals”. Other laws explicitly provide the state with the authority to control and otherwise manage animal and plant species, which threaten the habitat upon which wildlife depends.
The nationwide policy on the issue of feral animals in areas managed by the National Park Service, as declared in the NPS Management Policies, states, “Management of populations of exotic plant and animal species, up to and including eradication, will be undertaken wherever such species threaten park resources or public health and when control is prudent and feasible (Housten 205).”

The Management Policies also cite as an example of a threat from feral animals the “interfering with natural processes and the perpetuation of natural features or native species, especially those that are endangered, threatened, or otherwise unique (Housten 205).”

As previously noted, the hogs and horses on Cumberland Island are non-native species, which negatively affect the island’s delicate ecosystems. For this reason, NPS has attempted at different times to control or manage their numbers. These attempts have been largely unsuccessful for many reasons. After its acquisition of Cumberland Island, NPS initiated a program of live trapping of hogs in 1975 (Seabrook 336). Over the next 10 years, these efforts, combined with public hunts and scientific collection, reduced the feral hog population on the island by more than 1500 (336). Because the program was expensive and dangerous, it was apparently discontinued by the early 1980’s (336). Zack Kirkland, who led the hunt in 1975, said that nothing “short of an army battalion combing the place” would eradicate the population (336). The NPS now uses periodic public recreational hunts and shooting by NPS personnel in an attempt to control the feral hog population (336). However, because hog reproduction rates are so high, the population has nonetheless continued to grow and spread throughout the island (336). Currently, the population is over 2,000 and they inhabit and impact the entire island (336). In 1995, NPS attempted to initiate the first program to manage the feral horse herd at Cumberland Island. The plan was never initiated due to political sentiment (334).

When Cumberland Island National Seashore was created the legislation establishing the park failed to speak directly about the management of feral animals on the island. However, the act does state that, “the seashore shall be permanently preserved in its primitive and natural state”. When the Cumberland Island Wilderness Area was created it also failed to mention anything about the management of the feral animals. The legislation simply states, “the wilderness area should be administered in accordance with the provisions of the federal Wilderness Act”. Although neither of the two mentioned the feral animals directly, both have stipulations requiring stricter management, if not eradication, of Cumberland Island’s feral animal population.

In 1984, NPS prepared a General Management Plan for Cumberland Island National Seashore. The plan lists among its Management Objectives “to manage wildlife in a manner that restores and enhances the natural ecosystem of the island environment” and “to the greatest extent possible, remove feral hogs from the seashore lands.” It later states, “Feral animals will be removed where they are detrimental to natural and cultural resources, and they will be transported to the mainland. This policy will necessitate the complete removal of feral hogs and the close monitoring of the population size of feral horses… The feral horse population will be managed to insure a healthy representative herd…”
In 1990, a Statement for Management of Cumberland Island National Seashore was issued. The NPS listed among its long-term management objectives to “develop a feral horse management program,” and to “manage native wildlife populations so as to achieve a balanced eco-system free of interferences created by man.” It later mentioned the goal to “reduce the competitive impact on native wildlife by exotic animals and the deleterious effect on vegetation by exotic animals by the most effective, feasible means possible.” Although no suggestions have been made at managing the horse population, it has been mentioned that sterilization of the deer population might be an option to limit competition (Boone 183-184).

The NPS was to release a new Resource Management Plan and Wilderness Management Plan in 2000, but all they have released so far is a rough draft. Unlike previous management plans of Cumberland Island, the rough draft of this document does directly address the management of feral animals. Is this new management plan, that directly addresses the feral animals, finally going to entice the National Park Service to take management action of feral animals or are they going to continue to look the other way like they have for the past 30 years?

The Cumberland Island Community is composed of many different actors. Directly on the island there is the NPS and the retained rights holders. Cumberland Island has 22 full time and 300 part time residents (Seabrook 354). All but a few of these retained rights holders want the NPS to leave the animals alone. Grover Henderson said, “Let god handle the horses, not the government. I don’t want the government doing anything except guarding the coast and perhaps carrying the mail (332).” The NPS manages the island and this costs money. Cumberland Island has more than 48,000 visitors a year (354). When surveyed, 90% of the visitors said they came to see the animals, especially the horses (355). On the mainland directly west of Cumberland Island is the town of St. Mary’s. Tourists and visitors bring a lot of money to stores, restaurants, and the town of St. Mary’s (355). Many of these places shut down for the winter when there are no customers and count on the business they get in the summer to make ends meet.

Finally, there are environmental interests groups like The Defenders of Wild Cumberland who want to see the island returned to its natural primitive condition. Charles Seabrook addressed the management complexities on Cumberland saying, “Unlike most parks in the system, Cumberland is home to several endangered species, dozens of structures on the National Register of Historic Places, and a Wilderness area with at least five still-occupied houses in it. Combine all of that with the wild horses, forty-eight thousand visitors a year, and twenty full-time and three hundred part-time residents, and you have a formula for a management train wreck (Seabrook 354) .”

The NPS has recklessly managed Cumberland Island for the past 30 years. It has ignored The Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, NPS policy, and Cumberland Island’s own 1984 Management Plan. Although a new management plan is being drafted that directly addresses the management of feral animals, some are questioning its necessity given the track record of the NPS. If the NPS cannot even follow federal laws, why do people think a new management plan will increase protection and restore the island’s naturally functioning ecosystems? Public opinion is obviously part of the reason for this. Retained rights holders want the NPS to leave the animals alone. The NPS needs money, which means they need tourists. The town of St. Mary’s also needs tourism to generate income. Unfortunately, tourists come to see the feral animals, not the naturally functioning ecosystem, so guess who is going to win.

An answer to the question above is not easily reached. In 1990, The National Park Service proposed the removal of feral horses from Ozark National Scenic Riverways. The Scenic Riverways were authorized by congress in 1964, with an extremely ambiguous statute to “conserve and interpret natural values and objects of historic interest, manage wildlife, and provide outdoor recreation (Housten 206)”. The population of feral horses was less than 30 and was introduced in the 1940’s. Local residents, government officials, and tourists to the area, challenge the removal of the horses stating they were “native species, wildlife, and cultural resources (Housten 206). The public took the NPS to court and a District Court found in favor of the plaintiffs, but accepted the NPS argument that the feral horses were rightfully an invasive species. The NPS appealed the case and in June of 1993 the decision of the District Court was reversed and the feral horses were removed (Housten 206).

This is an encouraging event for anyone who is in favor of seeing Cumberland Island restored to its natural state. As demonstrated in the case above, there is precedent for the removal of feral animals even when it is against public opinion. Even with a broad enabling statute, NPS policy still called for the removal of the feral horses. If Cumberland Island’s case went to court, there would be far more evidence to support the removal of the feral animals. If nothing else, it is in violation of federal law.
The opinion of the retained rights holders, government officials, and the town of St. Mary’s has driven the NPS to turn their head for the past 30 years. A new management plan that directly addresses the feral animals may be the answer. However, the NPS has neglected to follow previous management plans so the outcome of this plan will probably just result in a new management plan 20 years from now. The federal law is one issue the NPS can not continue to dodge. The Endangered Species Act, along with the Wilderness Act, will eventually call for the feral animals to be controlled and confined, or eradicated. Hopefully that day will come before it is to late for the Loggerhead Sea Turtle and the many other native species that are suffering because of the feral animals continued existence on Cumberland Island.

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