ASSATEAGUE — A foal was birthed on Assateague last week, the third in the last three-plus months, but the new addition to the herd of famous wild ponies on the barrier island hardly represents a baby boom.
After two new foals were born within a span of about two weeks in March, a third was added to the herd last week. While three in the span of about three months certainly represents a modest spike in the wild horse population on the barrier island, it’s not uncommon according to National Park Service officials.
“It’s a little unusual because of the close timing of the births, but three in a year is not unusual,” said Assateague Island National Seashore Chief of Resource Management Bill Hulslander this week. “I think we’ve averaged three to five a year for the last six years or so.”
The island’s wild pony population now stands at 114, a figure considerably lower than a decade ago, for example, but still a good distance away from the target of 80 to 100. While three to five foals are added to the herd in a typical year, an in-kind number drop off due to old age, illness or other natural and man-made factors. Hilslander said the mortality rate is around 3 to 5 percent, meaning three to five out of 100 are lost to attrition, which ironically, corresponds to the three to five new foals added to the herd each year.
Every so often, a wild pony on Assateague is hit and killed by a vehicle as interactions with humans increase, and two years ago, one pony was shot and killed by hunter during a planned deer hunt.
In another unusual example, one particularly feisty pony named Fabio was taken off the island last summer after showing a penchant for raiding campsites and picnic baskets. Fabio was sent to a ranch in Texas for training and eventual adoption. Otherwise, the local wild horse population largely left to the natural cycles of life with new foals born and older horses lost to attrition, with one notable exception.
In the interest of managing the size of the herd, which, if left unchecked would overtake the barrier island and gobble up the very resources the wild ponies need to survive, the National Park Service several years ago began a contraceptive program for the mares in the herd. The mares are injected with a non-invasive contraceptive to prevent multiple births in an effort to maintain and ultimately shrink the size of the herd to its manageable threshold.
In the interest of maintaining the gene pool of the famous wild ponies, believed to be descendants of domesticated horses placed on the island 300 years ago, each mare is allowed to birth one foal before being put on the contraceptive program. However, one in particular, the same mare that birthed the new foal last week, has been resistant to the program.
“That’s an interesting twist to the latest birth,” said Hilslander. “That particular mare has not responded to the contraceptive program and has now given birth to 10 foals in her lifetime.”
In another ironic twist, the contraceptive program started in order to control and manage the size of the herd on Assateague has also had an unforeseen counter effect.
The birthing process takes its toll on the mares and multiple births actually shorten the life spans of the mares. However, because of the contraceptive program, the mares are living much longer and their average lifespans have been increased by five to 10 years, according to Hilslander.
“The program is very effective, but that wasn’t taken into consideration when it first began,” he said. “Because of the program, the mares are living longer and the number hasn’t decreased as quickly as intended. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just going to take longer to reach that 80-100 threshold we’re hoping for.”
Even at a manageable size of 114, the wild ponies are threatened by increased interaction with the human visitors to the barrier island. Despite appearing fairly domesticated, the ponies are wild and visitors are bitten or kicked every year. Last year, new regulations were implemented prohibiting the public to come within 10 feet of any wild pony on the island. The new regulations also require campers and other visitors to properly secure food and food-related trash including hard-sided, lockable storage bins or coolers.
Since 1991, a volunteer group called the Pony Patrol has roamed the barrier island during the summer season enforcing the rules, educating the public about the ponies and encouraging people to enjoy the wild horses without interacting with them. This week, Assateague officials put out a call for more volunteers after discovering the Pony Patrol was short staffed.
Volunteers are needed to work a four-hour shift, either Saturday afternoon from 2-6 p.m., or Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., or 2-6 p.m. Volunteers are provided with training on horse behavior, the problems associated with human-horse interactions and how to handle roadside animals. Patrols are conducted by bicycle on paved roads. Anyone interested is urged to contact Pony Patrol coordinator Allison Turner at 410-629-6072.