Horse Options Outlined For Assateague Island

ASSATEAGUE – An environmental assessment of the plan to reduce the size of the herd of feral horses on Assateague discloses several options including doing nothing at all, but the favored option could remove some of the famous wild animals to new homes off the barrier island.

National Parks Service (NPS) officials last winter announced 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 herd, believed to be descendants of horses that arrived on the island some 300 years ago, has proliferated to the point it is having an adverse effect on other natural resources on Assateague.

The current wild 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. The process to develop a new management strategy for the herd began in early 2007, but the next step was the release of an environmental assessment of the several options on the table.

The EA released last week has winnowed the vast number of alternatives down to just a handful and a public comment period is now open to allow residents and visitors to weigh in on the proposed plans. An open house is also planned for June 10 from 6-8 p.m. at the Barrier Island Visitors Center along Route 611 near the entrance to the national seashore during which parks service staff will outline the proposals.

Several years ago, NPS officials began a horse management program including the use of contraceptives on the wild animals 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.

According to Assateague Island National Seashore Superintendent Scott J. Bentley, research has shown a too-large population of horses greatly influences the distribution and abundance of many native plants, including several rare and threatened species, and alters the dynamics of the diverse ecosystem on the barrier island.

“Over-grazing has also been shown to reduce biodiversity and to disrupt important natural processes such as dune formation and stabilization,” he said. “Although the horses are an important part of the Assateague visitor experience, there is a need to manage the population in ways that will both provide for the long-term health of the herd as well as minimize adverse impacts to other park resources and values.”

To that end, NPS officials have developed several alternatives for managing the herd and reducing their numbers to minimize its impacts on other natural resources. The first alternative listed in the EA is a “no action” alternative, which would continue all present feral horse management activities including the existing contraceptive program in order to stabilize the population at around 150.

The second alternative, and the preferred alternative for NPS officials from an environmental standpoint, includes the one-time capture and removal of selected feral horses from the barrier island. Under this plan, the herd size would be reduced to the desired 80-100 range within two years by capturing select members of the herd and removing them from the island.

Under the plan, feral horses selected for removal would be dispersed either through an adoption program or to a horse sanctuary. The adoption program would place selected feral horses with private individuals where they would be managed as domesticated horses for the duration of their lives under conditions specified by the National Park Service.

The sanctuary option would place groups of selected feral horses in privately owned sanctuaries where they would be managed, as feasible, as wild horses for the duration of their lives under conditions specified by the parks service. Feral horses selected for adoption or for the sanctuary would remain the property of the National Parks Service and would be routinely monitored for the duration of their lives in order to ensure their health and well-being. Under the plan, all monitoring, tracking and inspection activities would be monitored by the NPS.

Another alternative would intensify the current contraceptive program to achieve the desired herd reduction target of 80-100 within five to eight years. Under this plan, once the herd was reduced to the desired size range, the intensity of the contraception program would be abated and the size of the herd would stabilize.

Yet another alternative would utilize both approaches including an intensified contraceptive program and the capture and removal of selected horses from the herd for adoption or to a sanctuary. During the development of the EA, several other options were taken off the table including the dispersal of horses by means other than adoption or relocation such as auction or euthanasia.

Putting down some of the horses was never really an option, according to NPS officials, because of the public’s affinity for the wild ponies.

“The feral horses of Assateague Island National Seashore are the park’s most well known natural resource,” said Bentley. “Thousands of visitors are attracted to Assateague each year to view free-roaming horses in a natural barrier island setting.”