Next door to Amelia Island here at the Florida-Georgia border sits Cumberland Island, just across the St. Marys River from Fernandina Beach. Cumberland Island National Seashore is one of America’s largest undeveloped areas of coastal wilderness along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard.
The island features various ecosystems — seashore beach/dune system, the maritime forest area and salt marsh. Cumberland Island is coveted for its natural setting — its expansive dunes, vast empty seashore, the island’s signature live oaks draped in Spanish moss (and resurrection fern, as pictured below) — and the island’s fascinating history.
However, there’s another popular attraction that brings visitors to Georgia’s largest barrier island, the notorious “wild” (i.e. feral) horses roaming Cumberland. Many tourists visiting the National Seashore hope to glimpse and perhaps photograph them. One constant presence on Cumberland Island for centuries has been the island’s notorious horses.
The National Park Service’s Cumberland Island National Seashore states the meaning of “feral” (on the site’s horse page) as follows:
“an animal that was once domesticated, but has reverted to a wild state and adjusted to surviving in a natural environment without help or support of any kind from humans.”
Less loved and seen by the general public, however, are the feral hogs also roaming Cumberland Island. Some visitors may be unaware of their presence and ongoing efforts to control the island’s hog population.
The hogs and horses are non-native to Cumberland (i.e. invasive species). While the feral horses receive lots of adoration from visitors, their unmanaged, free roaming existence on Cumberland has been a controversial topic for many decades. (Non-native cattle also formerly roamed Cumberland Island.) However, hogs are the species that formerly and presently are the most difficult challenge to control because of their proliferation. Hogs are not just a localized problem, but a national challenge. According to the U.S.D.A., “Feral Swine have become one of the most expensive invasive species in the United States.”
Lawsuit Attracts Attention To Condition Of Horses
Environmental damage is reportedly caused by both horses and hogs at the National Seashore.
The plight of the horses — their health and well being on Cumberland — gained national media attention earlier this year in April 2023 when a civil action was filed on the horses behalf at the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, GA.
If the plaintiffs were to win, it could result in the removal of the horses from Cumberland Island.
In a past era, long before most of Cumberland Island became a National Seashore, property owners on the island (in particular, the Carnegies), had horses for farming, carriages, and hunting. But with the passing of time and property ownership changes, the horses came to rely on the island’s natural sustenance to survive.
While local lore in the past indicated the horses originated back to Spanish colonial settlers of the 1500s, DNA eventually proved otherwise. According to the NPS, “Genetic studies conducted in 1991 by the University of Georgia and University of Kentucky on the island’s population showed that Cumberland’s horses are closely related to Tennessee Walkers, American Quarter Horses, Arabians, and Paso Fino.”
Will Final Chapter Be Written In This Horse Tale?
The horses’ long story, however, reached a compelling height when a civil lawsuit was filed on the horses behalf this past spring. How this horses’ tale ends and whether they will remain on Cumberland Island well into the future, remains uncertain. December 2023 marks eight months since the civil action was filed on behalf of the horses back in April 2023. It appears with the December holiday season upon us, the year 2023 may end without knowing the horses’ fate.
According to the first page of the civil action filed at the U.S. District Court in Atlanta, “Plaintiffs bring this action to advance the health and wellbeing of the horses of Cumberland Island and to protect Cumberland Island’s natural and wilderness resources.”
A few months later, in July 2023, the National Park Service’s attorneys for the federal defendants in the case filed a “Motion to Dismiss” stating the following conclusion in the filing:
“Federal Defendants respectfully request that the Court dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
More About Cumberland Island’s Feral Horses
Regarding the horses, “during their history on the island horses have been managed as both free-ranging and corralled livestock. By the mid-1900s horses were roaming the island with little or no care provided from island residents,” according to the Cumberland Island National Seashore website.
Also, according to the federal seashore’s website:
“The horse herd on Cumberland likely consumes between 200 to 400 tons of vegetation each year, removing up to 98% of it in areas they frequent. This impact can cause damage to island resources by destabilizing dunes and streambanks, selectively removing native grasses and forbs, and threatening the biodiversity of native plants and wildlife.“
Cattle also used to roam Cumberland Island and caused significant long-term damage, especially to areas on the southend of the island. But years after the Cumberland Island National Seashore was created in 1972, the National Park Service eventually rounded up what was left of feral cattle, and they were removed by around 1987. However, full eradication of feral hogs to protect native species is a much more challenging task, since they have a high rate of reproduction.
The plaintiffs in the horses’ case are:
- Horses of Cumberland Island
- The Georgia Equine Rescue League, Ltd.
- The Georgia Horse Council, Inc.
- Will Harlan (author of “Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island”)
- Carol Ruckdeschel (longtime resident of Cumberland Island and author of “A Natural History of Cumberland Island, Georgia” )
The defendants in the case include:
The U.S. Secretary of Interior, “Region 2” director of the National Park Service, Superintendent of Cumberland Island National Seashore at time the lawsuit was filed in April 2023 (who since resigned, taking another job at a different National Park), and commissioner of the Georgia Dept. of Natural Resources.
See more about the horses of Cumberland Island lawsuit. Link to the court filing in U.S. District Court in Atlanta (PDF file), provided by the National Parks Traveler website.
Public Attitudes & Preferences – Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of Georgia
A dozen years ago, back in 2011, results of a study by the University of Georgia were published on public opinion about invasive species at Cumberland Island National Seashore. After surveying 1,166 summer visitors to this Georgia barrier island, results were summarized in an article titled “Public divided over how to manage invasive animal and plant species on Cumberland Island.” According to the article on the study, “controlling invasive species can spur controversy, either because some members of the general public find management techniques distasteful or because they don’t understand why control methods are necessary…”
$760,000 In Federal Funds For Feral Swine Control At Cumberland Island National Seashore
The other feral species roaming Cumberland Island National Seashore, the hogs, and efforts to control the island population received substantial funding in 2023. Cumberland Island National Seashore was awarded federal dollars in the amount of $760,000, as previously announced by the National Seashore in August 2023.
Compared to the popular horses that fascinate many tourists, the feral pigs seem to get little attention from the public, other than from those participating in annual managed hunts (and internally, the seashore’s additional methods of hog control). The National Seashore has indicated the hogs “have been documented to destroy native plant communities, increase erosion, increase disease transmission, compete with native wildlife for food resources, and destroy sea turtle nests.”
Nesting Sea Turtles
This local region at the Florida-Georgia coastal border is a sea turtle-loving place. Park rangers and volunteers monitor the beaches, mark nests, and record nesting data during the sea turtle season (May 1st through October 31st each year), along both Cumberland Island and here on Amelia Island. (A nest located on Amelia Island, Florida pictured below).
The Cumberland Island National Seashore project is part of a nationwide effort to restore natural habitats and protect native species, such as Loggerhead sea turtles. This project will allow Cumberland Island National Seashore to increase control efforts of feral swine populations that disrupt natural ecosystems by damaging habitats, preying on native wildlife, and transmitting disease(s).
“The staff at Cumberland Island National Seashore have taken great strides in reducing the impacts of feral swine on native species and habitats, resulting in an almost 90 percent reduction in predation of Loggerhead sea turtle nests since 2002,” said Acting Superintendent Steve Theus in a past news release.
Feral Hog Managed Hunts On Cumberland Island
There’s plenty of area for hogs to hide, breed, and roam. The first feral hog hunt of the 2023/2024 season took place at Cumberland Island National Seashore during the first week of October 2023. According the the National Seashore, “hunters were able to use longbows, recurve bows, compound bows and crossbows.” Three additional hunts were scheduled before year end 2023.
Feral Hog Population Control
The big boost of funding will increase Cumberland Island’s capacity for feral swine management and the park’s ability to assist other NPS units in the region, according to a National Park Service press release that announced the federal funding.
Pigs? Hogs? Boars? What’s Definition of “Feral Swine?”
Feral swine damage is linked to the decline of nearly 300 native plants and animals in the U.S., many of which are threatened or endangered species. Protecting sensitive natural and cultural resources, limiting the spread of feral swine-associated diseases, and minimizing the impacts of economic loss due to feral swine damage is of high priority of the National Park Service (NPS). Learn more about Cumberland’s feral hogs at the National Seashore’s website.
The full Cumberland Island National Seashore press release announcing the $760,000 in funding for feral hog control can be viewed at the National Park Service website.