By Jeff Hampton, Pilot Online
Meet Gus, the newest, most eligible bachelor in town. He's quite a stud - a wild stallion, if you will.
His mission? Gather a harem of mares, mate as often as possible and get them pregnant to save the wild Corolla horses. Sounds like a dream job, right?
Well, maybe not so much.
To woo their affections, he must challenge other stallions - many much larger than him.
Did we mention about 50 mares in the herd have been injected with a contraceptive and can't get pregnant for a year?
Poor Gus. And he's only 4.
But he's up to the challenge, insists Karen McCalpin, director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund.
"It's all about attitude," she quipped.
Gus was selected from the wild herd in Shackleford Banks, which is about 150 miles south of Corolla near Cape Lookout, near Beaufort.
Gus arrived in the Currituck Outer Banks in November. His genetics could diversify the Corolla horses enough to stop the increased number of birth defects, McCalpin said.
"This is history-making," she said. "This is the first time in centuries that new DNA from another wild herd has been introduced."
Two of eight foals born two years ago had birth defects, McCalpin said. Last year, one of two foals was flawed.
Gus was named after genetics expert Gus Cothran of Texas A&M University, who determined that the Corolla herd needed a blood line from another group of wild horses to stay healthy. Small populations tend to interbreed, causing birth defects. The herd of about 100 horses is down to one maternal line, McCalpin said.
"That's not a good place to be genetically," she said.
DNA tests indicate the horses descended from Spanish mustangs left here more than 400 years ago. The herd divides into smaller groups typically led by a stallion. They roam the dunes, maritime forests and neighborhoods in the northern Outer Banks four-wheel drive area above Corolla. Tourists pay hefty sums to take tours in hopes of spotting a few.
A bill submitted in Congress for the third time would permit the herd to grow to between 120 and 130 horses, a better size for genetic diversity, according to Cothran. The bill has died in the Senate in each of the earlier attempts.
A new management plan that does not limit the herd size was signed recently, McCalpin said. The former plan kept it to 60 horses. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Currituck National Wildlife Refuge, desires a smaller number to check habitat damage.
Meanwhile, year-round residents are reporting sightings of Gus. Some are accurate, some are not.
"All these spottings," McCalpin said. "He's like Elvis."