Ponies, ponies, everywhere!
One of my favorite vacation spots, and the scene of many of my teenage memories, is the Assateague Island National Seashore in Maryland. Even at the height of summer, when tourists pour out of their little suburban havens, Assateague has plenty of uncrowded space for sun-worshipping, beach walks, and ocean-swimming.
It’s not your typical tourist beach – that’s what Ocean City (MD) is for. At Assateague, there’s no boardwalk, no neon, no t-shirt shops. Even in winter, Assateague is beautiful.
However, one of the most talked about and photographed attractions isn’t even the beach. It’s the ponies.
Similar in size to Shetlands, the ponies are cousins of the Chincoteague ponies – made famous by the book Misty of Chincoteague – and have been on the island so long that no one knows exactly how they came to be there. Legends abound – survivors of a 17th century shipwreck or tax burdens hidden by early colonists.
But now there’s a problem – a pony problem. As the Washington Posts asks, “What do you do when one of your national treasures starts eating off all the others?”
That’s the National Park Service’s dilemma on this storied barrier island. Proof of its problem can be found on a spongy stretch of salt marsh, where one section is fenced off by barbed wire.
Inside the fence, the island’s native smooth cordgrass is growing thickly, a foot tall. Outside it, the grass is cropped nearly to the roots.
“Inside. Outside. A lot different,” said Mark Sturm, a Park Service ecologist, gesturing at the denuded muck. The culprit is obvious: There’s only one animal on Assateague that can’t get through the fence.
“This is all horses,” Sturm said.
Yes. Those horses. About 140 wild ponies live on the Maryland half of the island — less famous than their cousins in Virginia, who star in the annual Chincoteague pony penning, but still a major part of the Assateague mystique.
Now, Park Service officials say, the horse population is eating away at the plants that underpin rare coastal ecosystems here. They’re considering a radical solution: selling or relocating as much as a third of the Maryland herd.
These days, the horses’ prodigious appetite — about 21,000 calories a day for an adult — has altered all corners of the island. It leaves marsh birds called rails without tall grasses to hide in. It makes meals out of sea-beach amaranth, a federally threatened species.
And it leaves sand dunes without American beach grass, whose tufts and runners hold the sand in place. That’s no minor problem, because Assateague is basically one enormous dune.
“If the dunes go away, the island goes away,” said Ronald Pilling, past president of the Assateague Coastal Trust, an environmental group.
On the Maryland side, Park Service officials say they want to reduce the horse herd by 40 to 60 animals. They stress that killing the horses is not an option and that they’re unlikely to fence them in permanently. But the horses could be sent away: either sold or taken to privately owned sanctuaries on the mainland. The potential solutions were first reported by the Daily Times of Salisbury, Md.
Animal-rights groups have pushed for another option — to wait for the contraceptive program to reduce the population on its own. That might take six years or more, but they say it’s worth it.
I love Assateague. I went there two years in a row with a church group, started dating my now-ex, spent part of my honeymoon, and gone vacationing there several times. Each of my kids has had the joy of waking up one morning with a pony (or two) peering in the tent’s mesh window. My oldest spent a week trying to catch a pony on foot, then opted for digging a hole to capture one.
If you visit Assateague, be sure to watch your step. Ponies don’t clean up after themselves.
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