Park Service Announces New Horse Safety Initiatives

ASSATEAGUE – In an effort to reduce or eliminate human interaction with the wild horses on Assateague, National Park Service officials this week announced a series of initiatives aimed at ensuring the safety of the barrier island’s famed residents.

Over the years, there have been countless interactions between humans and the wild horses that inhabit the Maryland side of Assateague Island, particularly in the developed areas. Almost every year, there is at least one wild horse struck and killed by a motorist in the developed area of the national park.

Last summer, for example, a popular mare was struck and killed, and her young foal was injured in an apparent hit-and-run collision. The horses on Assateague are wild and are generally free to roam the island. Many inhabit the seldom-visited areas of the island, but more than a few can routinely be seen in and around the visitor areas, interacting with vehicles, beachgoers and campers, often with tragic results.

The Assateague Island Alliance (AIA) advocates on behalf of the wild horses on the island, and each year a volunteer Pony Patrol is deployed to attempt to limit human interactions with the horses. However, with vehicle collisions seemingly on the rise and horses in the visitor areas frequently getting into coolers and other food storage containers on the beach and at campsites, the Assateague Island National Seashore announced this week a series of enhanced steps to protect the horses.

Through a social media statement, the Assateague Island National Seashore this week announced the Horse Management program in the national park is implementing important changes during the height of the season to ensure to ongoing safety of the wild horses and the visitors.

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For example, the National Park Service has a team of six Horse Management rangers with boots on the ground to mediate human interactions with the wild horses. In addition, the Horse Management program has acquired two Polaris UTVs, which ensure speedy response times with over-sand capabilities to incidents involving the wild horses and human visitors.

Perhaps the biggest change is the establishment of “red zone” area throughout the barrier island, particularly in the developed visitor areas.

“Red zone areas have been identified as high visitor use areas where frequent negative human-horse interactions occur,” the statement reads. “During the peak summer months, the horses will be proactively moved from red zone areas to prevent undesirable interactions from occurring.”

Assateague Island National Seashore officials said in the statement the changes were spurred by the increased frequency of human interactions with the wild horses and demands from fans of the beloved island inhabitants for more safety procedures.

“You asked and we listened,” the statement reads. “The safety of both visitors and the wild horses is our top priority. We ask that you please respect our Horse Management rangers and take their advice on how to properly view the horses.”

In addition to the frequent horse-vehicle collisions, other human interactions often occur, sometimes with tragic results and sometimes with happy endings. Two years ago, a wild horse on the island died from ingesting a large amount of dog food after getting into an unattended campsite.

That incident led in part to the creation of the “A fed horse is a dead horse” program on the island, designed to discourage people from feeding the wild animals along with strict food storage regulations. Campers are only allowed to store food in a vehicle or in a strapped cooler placed in a food storage box provided by the park service under picnic tables.

In May, a popular stallion who had roamed the barrier island for over a dozen years had to be removed from Assateague because it had become highly food-conditioned and aggressive in the developed area of the park. Delegate’s Pride had become accustomed to human food and was becoming aggressive with visitors and staff to the point it was decided to permanently relocate the stallion to a wildlife sanctuary for horses in Texas.

Just last month, two of the wild horses on the island that frequent the developed areas around the Verrazano Bridge and the entrance to the barrier island became spooked by vehicle interaction and crossed the bridge to the mainland. The two horses, already in an agitated state, became hemmed in by vehicles and visitors. With their path to retreat to the island cut off, the horses fled west over the bridge to the mainland, park service officials said. Both horses were safely corralled and returned to Assateague.

In one of the more bizarre incidents involving human interactions, two years ago a frequent visitor to the island came across two young men petting one of the horses. The visitor advised the men the horses were wild and would bite and kick and told them it was a good idea to just walk away when approached by them. One of the young men told the visitor he was a ranch hand and knew his way around horses. A short time later, the visitor returned and found the “ranch hand” riding on the back of one of the wild stallions.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.