SANTA CRUZ ISLAND — Oh, to be a horse on this little hunk of paradise.
Plenty of room to roam. No nasty predators to stress over. And a seemingly endless, emerald-colored coat of velvety grass to graze, courtesy of El Nino.
No doubt about it, the 15 plump-looking horses that call this island home have it pretty good. But if the National Park Service has its way in a simmering legal dispute with an equine organization, the animals' cushy lifestyle could come to an end as early as next week--and they could find themselves slumming with the hoi polloi on the mainland.
As part of its plan to restore the Channel Islands to their native habitat, the Park Service is looking to move the horses off 24-mile-long Santa Cruz Island, along with the thousands of feral pigs and sheep it blames for overgrazing and denuding the island's east end of vegetation over the years.
The Santa Barbara-based Foundation for Horses and Other Animals, which contends that the so-called Heritage Herd consists of wild horses that are genetic descendants of the ranch animals brought to California by Spanish settlers in the 1800s, considers the deportation plan outrageous.
It has sued the Park Service and John Gherini, the former part-owner of the island, to keep the herd where it is, arguing that the animals are not resistant to mainland diseases and may be of scientific importance in addition to their historical value.
"It would be really heartbreaking if they had to leave," said foundation co-founder Beverly McCurdy. "Sometimes, I don't even sleep at night because I think of the horses."
Tim Setnicka, the head of Channel Islands National Park, scoffs at the notion that the animals he calls "mongrels" have any special value. He believes the horses need to be removed, as Gherini has advocated, to complete the restoration plans and provide the visiting public with a more natural, authentic island environment. Besides, one of them recently kicked and fractured a visitor's leg, he said.
"They went from horses belonging to the Gherinis standing around in the pasture--they could be kangaroos--to now, all of a sudden, it is the 'Heritage Herd,' " Setnicka said.
"They are largely inbred quarter horses--it is two stallions breeding with their daughters."
Gherini and the Park Service prevailed in U.S. District Court, winning summary judgment. But the foundation continued its fight, appealing the case to the 9th Circuit Court and obtaining a stay of the ruling until March 24.
Last week, however, foundation members received a tip that Park Service workers were corralling the horses near shore in direct violation of the court order. The grass-roots organization, which has already spent more than $80,000 on the legal battle, quickly raised cash and rented a helicopter to fly over the corral, verifying the report.
The animals were released within two days, accompanied by a letter from the government's attorney characterizing the episode as a "mix-up."
Veterinarian Karen Blumenshine, who discovered the horses several years ago and brought them to the attention of some of her clients, believes it was no misunderstanding.
"They accidentally hired a cowboy from Santa Ynez to accidentally round the horses up," she said. "We got the whole thing on video."
Blumenshine recently made a lobbying visit to Washington and persuaded five members of the House Resources Committee to write a letter to the director of the National Park Service on behalf of preserving the herd.
Based on information from an Ohio State birth-control expert and other scientists, she contends that the number of horses on the island could be controlled while still preserving enough animals to maintain a breeding pool.
"If there were legislation, I would prefer to have a neutral, mutually agreed-upon panel to come up with a number that would be harmonious to the environment," she said. "There has been no evidence whatsoever that these horses have done any harm."
On Friday, Blumenshine and a small group of supporters traveled by boat from the Ventura Harbor to Santa Cruz Island, spotting the herd as it grazed on a sloping hillside near a rusting, abandoned oil well.
The herd--actually made up of two small groups that often blend together--has been on its own since 1984, the year before ranching stopped on the island. Before then, the horses often ran wild but were occasionally used to round up sheep.
Foundation members have named all the herd's members.
While watching Buck Bay briefly square off against El Dorado, the other leading stallion, over Delphine, Blumenshine collected urine and hair samples. The urine samples will determine if any mares are pregnant; the hair samples will ascertain one horse's parentage.
Studying the herd's behavior and its physical characteristics--such as all the horses' perfectly healthy hooves--could teach other horse owners how to better care for their own, they said. And studying the genetic links that some experts believe exist between the horses and their Spanish colonial ancestors could preserve what is left of Old California's heritage.
Besides, they argue, who could ever remove a horse from Santa Cruz Island?
"If there is a perfect place in the world, it is here," Blumenshine said, gazing as the breeze ruffled the grasses before her. "They have everything they could ever want."
Times staff writer Hilary MacGregor contributed to this story.