Friday, July 22, 2011

Island Colonial Mustangs: Chincoteague Ponies BeachCombers Challenge Painting #153

The management of wild horses has always been a bit of a challenge to agencies charged with the task. The National Sea Shore National Park has become a microcosm of sorts to the management issues facing all of the Wild Horse Management Areas in the United States. The two herds represent two successful management styles and options that of course have their problems.
5 by 5 inches Watercolor
by LindaLMartin Artist
The ponies are of the same main breed makeup, which upon separation have actually are becoming two distinct types of horses. Each herd breaks up into family bands just like wild Mustangs out in the west. Each band has a range territory that they graze and common water sources at which they congregate.  The difference comes with who manages each herd.

The North Herd is managed by the National Park Service. The National Park Services has been managing the herds on the North Island of Assateague also known as the Maryland Side without round ups for over 30 years. They do not adopt out the young. With the use of PZP a fertility drug that prevents horses and deer from conceiving; only certain mares are allowed to foal. Because of the limited contact initiative the horses are administered the drug from a distance using a dart gun.

The Northern herd also called Assateague Ponies has complete freedom to roam any place they want on the Maryland side of the Island. Here in is where the problem lays.  There is continuous interaction with humans that is compromising the safety of the herd. The first issue is that even with over 20 miles of habitat to roam in the horses have discovered that there is a source of food in those big shiny Cars and Recreational Vehicles. And their unwitting accomplices are people who for some reason can’t believe the warnings they read about not feeding the horses.

Thus we have whole family groups who take on the beggar roll and stand around in prominent areas of the camp grounds , usually the parking lots  and  the road waiting for a hand out. The problem is compounded by the calm demeanor of the animals because they are desensitized to humans so when they people make an attempt to pet the horses or feed them the horses being untrained and wild  do more then tread on feet: they bite, kick, and on more than one occasion have knocked a few people down when  trying to move out of the way.

As if this couldn’t get any worse people go in search of the horses and basically chase them down and try to corner them for photos and to give them treats. The horses are supposed to have the right away. But this behavior by humans puts the entire herd in jeopardy.  Each time there is an aggressive action by a horse its not the person who pays it’s the horses. The horses are just doing what horses do but people by pushing the limits and not acting with wisdom to protect them can cause them to be removed and even put down as a result of aggressive behavior. Since the space Is limited on the island the horses don’t have much room to get away. This is a problem for all of the wild herds of Colonial Mustangs all up and down the east coast.

And because visitors to the islands encourage this type of friendly behavior in the horses there are repercussions of another type.  The horses can become ill from being fed food that is not suitable to their diets and sometimes they will have reactions or colic that kill them.   The other danger is that because the horses have no fear of Cars, the encouragement of tourists to come and get a treat from a vehicle can lead to horses being killed by cars who didn’t see them. On average one horse is killed a year  in the Maryland herd by a car.
Most of these small herds are limited to 100 to 150 in size, the minimum to keep their genetic diversity. These herds can ill afford to lose one horse and have its genetic uniqueness removed from the gene pool.

To help with the problem of humans and wild horses interacting and getting in trouble the National Park Services has a volunteer service that enlists the help of private citizens that patrol the  islands main roads and  Camp grounds .  Their job is to move offending ponies to prevent accidents and interactions with people. Anyone who wants to be an active part of the solution can contact the National Park Service and receive the training then get on the schedule for the Pony Patrol.

The herd of Chincoteague ponies that roam the south island are handled a bit differently. They are able to keep their wild yet gentle demeanor while having limited contact with humans and roaming great areas of the Southern Assateague Island for the most part without being molested and compromised by humans. This is done by established grazing and sheltered areas that are fenced off to keep people out while allowing the ponies to go where their natural migration will take them. There are trails and over look areas of the National Seashore that allow visitors to view the horses but for the most part the herd is seen but not touched, so to speak, by visitors. 
Chincoteague Ponies graze pacefully behind protective fences along
the Nature Trail at Assateague Island. There are bike rentals for a longer self tour
and walking tours as well as car visits.

The management difference may have more to do with the fact that the Chincoteague Ponies are owned by the Chincoteague Fire Department. As such The Fire Department leases the land from the  National Park Service.  There are also areas of land that are designatete a Wild Life Refuge or Preserve. The CVFD maintains the fences and privately manage the health and well being of the ponies. From what I have seen they are better maintained, in some cases, than some back yard horses. There are plenty of occasions to see the Chincoteague Ponies up close on Assateague. However, you will probably want to bring your long lenses with you to take really good photos if you are shooting on the south end of Assateague Island and entering the park and preserves through Chincoteague.

If you decide to visit the Maryland Side of the National Sea Shore remember that there is a $100 fine for each count of being closer than 10 feet from a wild pony or chasing and otherwise harassing the ponies or feeding them. If you will be visiting the area for a considerable time and would like to be a part of the pony patrol you can find out how to become a part of the Volunteers   here: 
For more information on Chincoteague and  Virginia Side of  Assateague Island the  Natural Wild Life Preserve and the Assateague Island National Sea Shore you can contact the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce

If you have the opportunity visit both ends of the Island. Do the walking and boat tours and  yes camp out on Assateague North. Its worth the sunshine and the photo ops with the ponies.

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