- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 29, 2014

BERLIN, Md. (AP) - Technically speaking, horses are as foreign to the sands of Assateague Island as phragmites, the reedy marsh plant that covers hundreds of the barrier island’s acres.

The National Park Service accuses both invaders - calling them out on an agency website from among a host of invasive species on Assateague - of inflicting “significant impact” on native plants and animals.

For its ecological crimes, phragmites have been marked for eradication. Park managers remove them by hand or spray them from the skies with a potent weed-killer designed for aquatic pests.

By comparison, the feral horses are treated with kid gloves. Twenty years into its horse-control program on the Maryland side of the island, the park service can claim victory. This year, the agency reached its goal of reducing the size of the herd to no more than 100 horses.

In response, biologists with the Assateague Island National Seashore are shifting strategies, taking steps to ensure the horses’ numbers remain stable instead of continuing their decline. If all goes according to plan, horses will be part of the island’s landscape for generations to come.

This week, the island’s other group of horses will take its place in the spotlight once again during the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department’s Pony Swim. For the 89th year, “saltwater cowboys” will gather the 150 “ponies” they own on the Virginia side of the island and swim them across the channel to Chincoteague, where the foals will be sold at auction.

There will be no Phragmite Festival. If there were, it would be a first.

The disparity in treatment between horses and phragmites demonstrates that land managers don’t always do what’s strictly best for nature. Sometimes, tradition trumps science.

“Everything has an impact,” said Jay Kirkpatrick, a Montana-based researcher who has studied Assateague’s horses for nearly three decades. “Three white-tailed deer will have an impact on the island. The issue is because the park service’s mission is wider, the question you have to ask is, ‘What is an acceptable impact?’ “

Such considerations were almost surely not on the minds of European settlers when they introduced horses to the 37-mile-long island in the late 17th century. The arrangement enabled the horses’ owners to shirk taxes and fencing laws.

Over time, the horses adapted to the island’s harsh environment. Adjusting to the nutrient-poor diet of marsh grass, they shrank in stature to the size of ponies. They became like camels, drinking twice as much water as the typical horse to offset their salt intake. Their midsections grew plump and round.

Their shorter legs proved advantageous for navigating the island’s soft, unpredictable terrain, as well. A rangy thoroughbred would probably break a leg trying to hoof it among Assateague’s bogs and sugar-sand shores.

In modern times, the “Chincoteague pony” became recognized as a distinct breed, valued for its hardiness and easiness to train.

In all, about 250 horses live on the island. But since 1968, the population has been bisected by a barbed-wire fence running the length of the Maryland-Virginia border on the island.

The Virginia horses live in large “grazing compartments” in what is known as Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Their fire department owner pays the federal government $1,500 a year for grazing rights.

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