Thursday, September 5, 2013

New rules rein in Corolla wild-horse tour guides

New rules rein in Corolla wild-horse tour guides By Jeff Hampton The Virginian-Pilot © September 5, 2013 COROLLA, N.C. Wild-horse tour guides largely heeded new restrictions on their operations this season, even as they chafed at some of the rules. But supporters of the animals say more needs to be done to protect them. Sheriff’s deputies issued tour drivers five $50 tickets from Memorial Day through Labor Day: three for speeding and two for stopping on the road, according to a report from Currituck County’s code-enforcement division. No operators received two tickets within 30 days, which would have triggered a three-day suspension and cost as much as $36,000 in lost revenue. Dispatchers’ records show 34 calls all summer related to wild horses. Tour-guide behavior was better but still needs improvement, said Karen McCalpin, director of the Corolla Wild Horse Fund. “I think there has been a mixed bag of compliance,” McCalpin said. “It held people accountable when they were not before. The horses are safer.” Kimberlee Hoey, who lives in the four-wheel-drive area and volunteers with the Wild Horse Fund, reported in July a line of tour vehicles crossing dunes into her neighborhood after 8 p.m., a violation of the new ordinance. “Sometimes people forget this is a residential community,” Hoey said. McCalpin said another resident reported a frightened stallion trapped between tour vehicles. No one is supposed to come within 50 feet of a wild horse. McCalpin offered free one-hour courses on the ordinance in May and June. All but one of the nine tour operators attended, she said. Corolla’s herd of 120 horses descends from Spanish mustangs stranded on the Outer Banks more than 400 years ago, according to Corolla Wild Horse Fund research. Currituck and the state use wild-horse images in national ads to attract visitors. Studies have shown the horses to be one of the largest draws to the Currituck Outer Banks – the wild-horse excursions draw roughly 3,000 people a day and drive the county’s tourism industry. Prompted by years of complaints, Currituck officials sought a balance that would protect the horses but not stifle business. County commissioners passed an ordinance in January restricting tour times and routes, capping the number of tour companies at 10 and the number of vehicles per company at five. Speed limits remained at 15 mph within 300 feet of the horses. Guides have a reputation for doing whatever it takes to get a four-wheel-drive vehicle – such as a Jeep full of paying customers with cameras – near a herd of wild horses, rumbling over dunes and through the remote communities. Lines of the vehicles jaunt over the sandy roads, at times pressing too close to the horses, blocking travel and trespassing on private property. All the new limits were fair except one, said Bob White, owner of Beach Jeeps of Corolla: Drivers no longer can stop to let customers take photos. “That’s probably the single biggest head-butt issue,” White said. “There needs to be a little give in this.” The Corolla wild horses are so accustomed to people watching them they appear to pose for photos. One of White’s drivers was cited for stopping in the road for a photo opportunity. Some violators are not tour guides but individuals in private or rented vehicles, White said. “ ‘Jeep’ has become a four-letter word,” he said.