Conserving North Carolina’s barrier islands

Lining the coast of North Carolina, barrier islands offer protection for towns and a refuge for numerous species of birds, plants, and other animals. This January, as part of a marine conservation biology course, we explored the management challenges present in the ever-changing landscapes of barrier islands, speaking with managers and visiting several of the islands ourselves.

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Over 100 wild horses live on Shackleford Banks, a barrier island about 30 minutes from the Duke Marine Lab by boat. First brought to the islands by Spanish explorers, the horses have inhabited the harsh landscape for centuries. They live in distinct social groups, surviving off the vegetation and the small amounts of fresh water available on the island. Shackleford horses are considered a non-native species by the National Park Service, and therefore, their population is closely managed for size, its impact on the environment, and genetic diversity. As both an introduced species and a population with a highly valued cultural history, management of Shackleford horses presents unique challenges to Park Service managers and other stakeholders in the area.

On other barrier islands near by, fishermen and tourists frequent the beaches, many using Off-Road Vehicles (ORVs) to drive on the beaches themselves. Driving on beaches can disrupt dune vegetation, threaten sea turtle hatchlings and harm nesting shorebirds. Conflicting use of barrier island beaches poses significant challenges for park managers, and several local areas, such as Cape Lookout National Seashore, are in the midst of developing management plans specifically for ORVs.

As highly dynamic ecosystems, moving and changing during storms and other natural processes, barrier islands would provide interesting conservation and management challenges even without human use. But with additional conflicts from human recreation and enjoyment of these beautiful places, the need for sustainable management of these areas is even greater, and creative strategies to balance the needs of people and nature will be increasingly necessary in years to come.