- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2005

ASSATEAGUE ISLAND, Md. (AP) — National Park Service officials say they may have to reduce the size of the herd of horses on Assateague Island because of damage the wild animals cause to grass and dunes on the barrier island.

For the past decade, the National Park Service has been injecting contraceptives into the mares in the herd of 160 on the Assateague Island National Seashore to control the population. Now, they say they may have to move some of the horses off the island.

“The horses are hurting the ecosystem,” said Carl Zimmerman, a resource-management specialist at the park. “The plants on the island haven’t evolved for large grazing animals, and the damage is pretty apparent. We can’t wait a long period of time to deal with this problem.”

The horses popular with visitors won’t be killed, but 35 to 60 may be donated or sold, Mr. Zimmerman said.

“These Assateague horses have a special place in the nation’s heart,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “We are not going to be sending any horses to the slaughterhouse.”

Contraceptives, delivered by dart gun, have slowed population growth, but haven’t reduced the herd.

In part, that is because park managers allowed each female to have one foal, and the females have started living years longer because their bodies weren’t strained by giving birth several times, he said.

A sale would be the first for the horses on the Maryland side of the island, although the more domesticated ponies on the Virginia side are sold off every July in the well-known “pony penning” auction in Chincoteague.

The two herds are managed very differently.

The Virginia horses are separated from the Maryland herd by a barbed wire fence that cuts across the island. The Maryland horses are owned by the National Park Service, while the Virginia horses are owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, Mr. Zimmerman said.

The Virginia horses are rounded up several times a year, given veterinary care, fed, branded and bred with other horses and kept away from tourists and sensitive areas. The Maryland horses are allowed to roam freely, sometimes biting visitors who try to pet them, destroying campers’ tents or stealing their food.

The lack of fencing on the Maryland side also has led to ecological damage from the horses, said Jack Kumer, natural-resources specialist for the Park Service.

Overgrazing has led to erosion, said Mr. Kumer, who added that the strain on the ecosystem is compounded by the grazing of 350 miniature Japanese elk, also known as sika deer. The deer have multiplied since the Boy Scouts introduced them to the island as part of an ill-conceived project in the 1920s, Mr. Kumer said.

“The ecosystem here is way out of whack, not in balance, primarily because of these two exotic grazers,” Mr. Kumer said. “Instead of a healthy, tall salt marsh, we have a short, unkempt lawn and packed mud. And that hurts our nursery for fiddler crabs, marsh birds, rails, shellfish, fish, snails and many other creatures.”

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