HARKERS ISLAND, N.C. -- As soon as the winds calm down, a barge will churn across the gray waters to Shackleford Banks, a remote island where a controversial cargo awaits a trip to civilization.
For one recent week, 14 of the island's herd of 130 wild horses have been corralled in a large wire pen. Gale-force winds halted their departure from the rugged spit of sand at the southernmost tip of North Carolina's Outer Banks.
But eventually a barge transported them to Harkers Island, where, for $600 apiece, they were sold to private owners lining up for a shaggy piece of North Carolina history.
First since 1981
Officials of the National Park Service and a private foundation that manages the animals say it is the first time since 1981 that any of Shackleford's horses have been put up for auction.
But the sale is the latest in a decades-old debate over whether the horses -- whose roots on the island may date back 400 years to the horses of Spanish or English explorers -- belong on a fragile barrier island.
The dispute has been especially spirited on islands that are part of the national park system. Under a federal mandate to protect native species, park rangers, like some environmentalists, fear that too many horses can destroy dunes, marshes and vegetation.
On Georgia's Cumberland Island, a herd of 240 horses has clipped grass and trampled marshes, said Park Service Superintendent Denis Davis.
"One of the frequent complaints from visitors is that they find a dying or a dead horse," said Davis, explaining that rangers treat the animals as wild and thus don't feed them or provide care and, in remote locations, don't bury carcasses.
The Park Service hasn't tried to artificially control Cumberland's herd since 1996, when federal legislation prevented the expenditure of tax dollars that year for that purpose.
This spring or summer, the Park Service plans to propose ways to manage Cumberland's herd, certain to arouse local residents who consider the horses to be as much a part of the rugged landscape as sea gulls and fiddler crabs.
At Shackleford Banks, last week's roundup signaled progress in the fight between local horse lovers and the Park Service. The agency manages the narrow, 9-mile-long island as part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore.
Local suspicion about the Park Service's intentions for the herd peaked in 1996. After the roundup of all 184 horses on the island, veterinarians found that 76 of them suffered from equine infectious anemia, a blood disease.
State law required that the infected horses be quarantined, donated for research, or killed. All 76 were euthanized by lethal injection, sparking allegations by some locals that the Park Service intended to rid Shackleford Banks of all of the horses.
'A local fear'
Some residents still believe that is the government's ultimate goal, despite 1998 federal legislation requiring the Park Service and the private Foundation for Shackleford Horses to maintain a herd of about 110 animals.
"A local fear is the Park Service is out to kill all the horses," said Sue Stuska, 41, the Park Service ranger in charge of Shackleford's horses.
Hired last July, the former college instructor represents the Park Service's intensified efforts to strike a balance between local affection for the herd and concern over environmental damage to the island.
"These are not deer or wild hogs," Stuska said. "These horses are much loved. There is a great emotional attachment to these horses."
A photographer of the Shackleford horses, Elizabeth Loftin, 41, said her grandfather was among old-timers who branded some of the animals and claimed ownership of them. The Park Service's takeover of the island in the early 1980s caused resentment among locals who felt they had been evicted from ancestral land.
The hostilities stretched to the horses. "They came in and stole them," said Loftin, whose group, Friends of the Wild Mustangs of Shackleford Banks, believes the horses should be left alone, with minimal human care.
'They're playing God'
Even now, that sentiment fuels local skepticism about the Park Service's policy of thinning the herd by adoption and birth control.
Testing has found no evidence of equine infectious anemia in any of the 130 horses.
"They're playing God now, giving them birth control and all," said Chris Rolison, 27, a Harkers Island boat captain who ferries tourists to Shackleford Banks and adjacent Core Banks.
But Dallas Willis, 65, a local resident who helped with the recent roundup, said, "That island will only allow so many. It is more humane to do what they are doing, managing them."