Feds Eye Options To Reduce Island’s Horse Population

ASSATEAGUE – While Chincoteague held its famous pony swim and auction this week as a means to reduce the size of its native horse population and earn some money for the local volunteer fire company along the way, its neighbors to the north at Assateague continue to explore ways to thin its herd of wild ponies. 

An estimated 150 wild horses crossed the channel from the barrier island to the fairgrounds on the other side during the 82nd Annual Chincoteague Wild Pony Swim on Wednesday in what has become a famous tradition. Many of them were auctioned off yesterday and those that were not will make the return trip today.

Just across the state line that separates the Virginia side of the barrier island from Maryland, officials at Assateague Island National Seashore are wrestling with finding their own way to reduce the wild pony population. National Parks officials announced this winter they were seeking a better way to achieve a balance between keeping the Assateague horses healthy and roaming free while protecting the unique natural environment of their island home.

The existing horses, descendants of horses that arrived on the island some 300 years ago, have proliferated to the point they are having an adverse effect on the other natural resources on Assateague. The current horse population on the island is an estimated 140, but NPS officials are seeking ways to reduce their numbers to a range of 80-100.

Several years ago, NPS officials began a horse management program including the use of contraceptives in an effort to at least stabilize the size of the growing herd. While the program has worked to some degree, it has not achieved the desired end result and the growing number of wild horses on the island continued to ravage the natural resources to the detriment of other creatures native to Assateague.

NPS officials are currently in the process of drafting an environmental assessment (EA) of the horse population and its impact on the island’s habitat, which will serve as the jumping-off point for a new strategy to manage the herd. The public weighed in at the outset of the EA last winter and will have another opportunity to voice their opinion on the future of the beloved ponies when the planning document is completed this fall.

“We’re getting real close to finalizing the environmental assessment,” said NPS staffer Carl Zimmerman, head of resource management at AINS. “We’re probably on target to release that to the public as early as September.”

Zimmerman said four basic alternatives have already been identified for managing the feral horse population, based on the best science available and the public input collected during the scoping process last winter.

The first alternative is to simply stay the course with the current management plan including the contraceptive program for the horses, which officials believe will work long-term but maybe not fast enough to curb the destruction of natural resources.

The second alternative is perhaps the most drastic of the four, but would achieve the desired target population in the shortest amount of time. The so-called “quick alternative” would be a one-time herd reduction including an adoption program for the horses or the establishment of sanctuaries for some of the ponies on the mainland.

In either case, NPS would retain ownership of the horses and a program would be implemented to carefully monitor their health and well-being, according to Zimmerman.

“This is obviously the fastest and probably easiest way to reduce the size of the herd on the island, but there would be a lot of conditions on it,” he said. “The horses would remain the property of the government. If we adopted some out, or moved some to a sanctuary, the people would be caretakers and not owners of the horses.”

One option not even on the table for discussion is reducing the size of the herd by euthanizing some of the older or infirmed horses.

“That was never even discussed,” said Zimmerman. “These horses are loved by the public and by us on the island and not for a second did we consider that. They mean too much to too many people.”

The other alternatives are similar to the first option, which is to simply stay the course, but would be tweaked somewhat to reach the target population faster. For example, the third alternative is to expedite the contraceptive program to reach the target population in the next five to eight years. Once the target number was reached, the contraception program would be relaxed and natural forces such as old age and attrition would stabilize the herd size.

The fourth option is similar to the third in that it calls for an increased contraception program initially, but the plan to keep the herd healthy and stabilized is slightly different. Once the target population was reached, NPS officials would use other methods to keep it there.

According to Zimmerman, those methods could include monitoring both genetics and demographics. For example, small numbers of new horses could be introduced to the herd from time to time to fiddle with the genetics somewhat to ensure some unhealthy resilience to disease and other natural factors isn’t perpetuated.