Horse News

National Park Service Reduces Assateague horse herd to a NON-VIABLE number

This might make you wonder, could tourists also be considered an invasive species?

SOURCE:  The Star Democrat

Park Service reduces Assateague horse herd to 100

By JEREMY COX The Daily Times of Salisbury

BERLIN (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.

Their cousins in Maryland, on the other hand, are owned by the park service.

They run freely, sometimes too much so. They’ve been known to raid campsites and beach blankets for food. Other times, humans are to blame, risking a nasty bite or trampling for the sake of a photo op.

Keeping horses on the island involves environmental concessions, park officials concede.

“We have plenty of vegetation to support a lot of horses,” said Allison Turner, a park service biological technician who has been working among the horses for years. “But it would destroy the natural barrier island habitat. What we’d have is just a horse farm.”

When the park service first took control of the Maryland portion of the island, it had just 28 horses. Like phragmites, their numbers multiplied — by 10-15 percent a year, to be exact.

The environmental damage seemed to grow at a similar rate.

The horses, being horses, compacted the soil beneath their hooves. Native fiddler crabs can’t burrow into overly trampled sand. And shorebirds, including the federally listed piping plover, found their nests at risk whenever the horses sought refuge from the biting flies on the bay side of the island in the summer.

The horses also ate just about everything green in sight.

That was bad news for a classification of birds known as rails, which depend on high marsh grass for resting and feeding. Park officials were so concerned about the potential effects on one endangered plant, the seabeach amaranth, that they began placing wire mesh cages around them to keep hungry horses at bay.

One of Turner’s jobs is to count as many horses as she can every other month. By last Tuesday, her July survey had found every Maryland horse except two: N9BO, an aging mare, and N6BKOS-H, a 5-year-old stallion.

She and Kelly Taylor, the park’s science communicator, followed a set of unreliable tire tracks down the beach in a park service pickup last Tuesday toward the last-known location of the pair.

A couple miles from the Virginia border, Taylor steered the truck down a bumpy path into the marsh, halting at a watery “gut” surrounded by lush, green marsh.

“This is one of the areas back in the day that was pretty heavily grazed,” Turner said. “It’s coming back pretty nicely.”

That comeback is one of the most surprising legacies of the park service’s horse-control efforts.

By the mid-1980s, land managers resolved to do something about the growing horse population. From media reports, they heard about a researcher out West who was experimenting with innovative methods of controlling the region’s exploding herd sizes.

For its part, Assateague offered Jay Kirkpatrick as perfect of a laboratory as he was going to find. Unlike the vast landscapes of the West, the skinny island reined in the horses, allowing them to be studied more reliably.

At first, he tried injecting steroids into the stallions to reduce their fertility. When that didn’t work, he tried it on the mares, but it had the opposite of the desired effect. Within the first year, every one that received injections got pregnant.

“They didn’t give up. They didn’t throw us off the island and tell us to go away. They said, ‘What else do you have up your sleeve?’ “ Kirkpatrick recalled.

Finally, in the third year, he settled on a vaccine for the mares that proved 95 percent effective at preventing foaling. Beginning in 1994, land managers used a dart gun to inject all of the female horses on the Maryland side with the vaccine.

Initially, the horse population continued to climb as the mares, freed from the stress of near-constant foaling, began to live into their 20s and 30s. But since reaching a high of 175 in 2001, their numbers have been steadily dropping.

This year, a major milestone was reached when the population fell to 100. Although it was short-lived — the birth of a foal bumped it back up to 101 — it was the first time the park service achieved its goal set in 2008 of maintaining a herd of 80-100 horses.

Turner said the park service is seeking to stay around 100 horses to provide some insurance against catastrophe, such as a major storm washing over the island. Keeping any fewer than 80 horses might lead to inbreeding, jeopardizing the herd’s future, the park service has determined.

For the past five years, she has stopped darting mares that haven’t gotten pregnant for at least seven consecutive years. Their infertility is likely permanent, she said.

For the first time, the park next year will enter an “adaptive management” stage — deciding how many fertile mares to dart based on the results of this fall’s pregnancy tests and the number of foals born this year.

Kirkpatrick has used the lessons learned on Assateague to apply his contraceptive methods around the world. The porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, vaccine has been used at 15 game parks in Africa, 250 zoos worldwide and elsewhere, he said.

“It’s a remarkable thing what they accomplished there” at Assateague, said Kirkpatrick, director of the Science & Conservation Center at ZooMontana in Billings, Montana.

Such an effort almost certainly wouldn’t have been expended for another non-native species.

Then again, the progeny of the North American horse is a matter of debate.

Officially, the park service has designated the horses as a “desirable feral species.” That opinion echoes the federal Bureau of Land Management in the West, which views North America’s horses as an invasive species and manages them as such.

Back on Maryland’s shore, “as far as we’ve been able to ascertain, horses were not part of the old Assateague,” said Jack Kumer, a wildlife specialist based at the park.

Scientists agree that North America’s horses died out about 11,000 years ago. But before they did, they migrated across a land bridge into Asia and eventually into Europe. The Spanish reintroduced them in the 16th century.

After that, things get murkier. Can a reintroduced species still be considered a native? Various groups, from the Park Service to the Wildlife Society, see today’s horses as outsiders. But many others, including Kirkpatrick, don’t.

“The genetics say this is the horse that originated here and was brought back here,” he said.

In June, two wildlife advocacy groups petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have the horse listed under the Endangered Species Act because of encroaching development and the effects of government-led roundups.

On Assateague, they are protected for a different reason, Kumer said.

“In a sense, they represent early colonial North America,” he said. “The park service looked back and was sensitive to how do the people live within the park. How do they view that landscape?”

The answer was — and remains — obvious: with horses.

Information from: The Daily Times of Salisbury, Md.,

28 replies »

  1. Proof positive that PZP can work permanently and advocates had to agree to use this on famous herds. People and night beach driving should be off limits in Assateague. Chincoteague/Assateague are over run by people.


    • Yes, PZP can cause permanent sterilization. The most important thing to remember is that most wild horse herds are non-viable, so PZP and other fertility control methods should NOT be used on those HMAs.


  2. This has been in the works for a while. These are some of the sources cited from a working group held by the Park Service at Berlin, MD in 2006.

    The meeting was hosted by the NPS and Md Parks, but it was led by the IUCN–the very group that began working with FWS and TNC to exclude species from western public lands based the IUCN’s opinions about where the species originated. The IUCN began working with its partners as early as the 1970’s. Furthermore, the IUCN member supported by Vice President Al Gore has been serving as an editor for PLOS and and other journals where the truth about our wild horses is published. However, in publications the details are hidden in tables, figures, the supplementary materials, through the use of the word caballeine or caballoid rather than the scientific name Equus caballus. Caballus comes from the unique shape of the horse’s dental patterns which are different from burros, donkeys, and zebras.

    Lacy, R.C., M. Borbat, and J.P. Pollak. 2005. Vortex: A stochastic simulation of the extinction process. Version 9.60. Brookfield, IL: Chicago Zoological Society.

    Miller, P.S., and R.C. Lacy. 2003. Vortex: A Stochastic Simulation of the Extinction Process. Version 9 User’s Manual. Apple Valley, MN: Conservation Breeding Specialist Group.

    Ralls, K., J.D. Ballou, and A.R. Templeton. 1988. Estimates of lethal equivalents and the cost of inbreeding in mammals. Conservation Biology 2:185-93.


  3. It is significant that this occurred in early 2006 after the 97 International Plant Protection Convention went into full force in October 2005. Although it is based on the alleged opinions of the IUCN, and President Clinton left the IUCN scientist that committed the fraud on the National Science Board where he could continue to hide his fraud and no doubt if you can hide one scientific fraud, you can hid others…..

    This is a travesty. There is absolutely no mystery about it. The exotic species exclusion did not go anywhere until young Al Gore arrived in Congress at the same time President Carter did in 1976. In 1976 the Park Service got permission to buy the ponies from the person that owned the island with the intent to grow the herd to 150. The express reason the AINS requested to funds to purchase the ponies was because they knew the ponies would always ensure visitors.

    Let’s look at what the IUCN has done through federal agencies with barrier island horses. 1996 & 1997 euthanized 86 Spanish Colonial Mustangs using EIS that required the NPS to test the horses for EIA–an illness that does not cross species boundaries, can be carried without producing symptoms, usually results in mild symptoms, but can cause death. Despite the fact that Caterett County residents had lined up quarantine pastures for these horses, the NPS and NC DOA euthanized every horse it tested with a positive test. Thank goodness for Congressman Walter Jones who was right on top of it. He worked with the community, Dr. Kirkpatrick, and Dr. Rubenstein who had been involved with these horses since he was a student at Duke University.

    Today, we have FWS managing the NC Corolla horses to a genetic collapse with all horses in the herd descending from the same mare line. At least one mare died by gun shot—horses have parrot mouth, hinged hind joints, are smaller at birth and later, and fewer of them live to adulthood.

    Al Gore’s partner in crime against his country spent time in grad school killing of plants and animals that populated islands in the keys and watched them grow back. Therefore, we can look at this as IUCN continuing the cynical experiment it started in in 1996 after the FAO agreed to redraft the 1979 IPPC to include UN CBD Article 8 (h) to prevent, control, and eradicate alien species in states and parts of states whee found.

    IUCN is supposed to be UNEP’s technical arm, but in the case of Article 8 (h), it was individuals inside the U.S. government that decided to use international law to implement an exotic species exclusion after FWS received so much opposition when it tried to implement President Carters E.O. 13112. It very much looks like VP Gore devoted much of time in Congress and throughout the Vice-Presidency trying to find a way to get this into law without the American people or Congress being the wiser.

    Today, Senator Reid and Senate Democrats profiting from the eradication of our wild horses refuse to hear wild horse protection legislations. But this is so much bigger than wild horses.

    Click to access Assateague%20Horse%20PHVA%20Final%20Report.pdf


    • HH, again you reference this loose-cannon scientist without a name or a link to help anyone else “out” this person. Do you know who this is or not, and if so, why won’t you share this information? There can be no investigation or hope of change without some better information. Thanks.


      • Icy Spots, I do know his name, and the people who can investigate have copies of everything I found on him.

        Even though he a the genius whose pulled off scientific fraud that is not only national but global in nature, he is not the top of the food chain. I guess there is a part of me that wonders whether or not he has found himself trapped in a role he cannot get of because the people profiting from this are so wealthy, powerful, and totally void of human compassion. If he gives it up, it will fall apart. The main reason I wonder about this is because his CV turned up on line—I think he either wanted to get caught or someone else had this and wanted him stopped. Either is possible based on the search terms I used.

        The House just passed some revisions to the ESA that requires much more disclosure from federal agencies regarding the data and information they use to make recommendations for the ESA. Some of the same people have been involved with both.

        The most difficult piece of this is finding a way to make sure the information gets in the hands of those who can use it. I hope to get a chance to talk to someone over the August recess—but I don’t know whether they will tell me anything or not.


    • HH, have you or anyone else who knows the people involved here ever confronted Al Gore directly to answer for this? I for one would be very interested to learn if he knew and/or was complicit, and what his views are about it today.


      • Knew? Complicit? He worked on this before he ever entered Congress. He was at Harvard with the guy whose pulled this off for him and his pals in the TNC & IUCN? Of course, the ultimate responsibility belongs to President Clinton, but Al Gore created a position for him and supported him for years. It appears to me that the alleged scientists and the universities most involved have completely wiped these programs out of existence in the past seven or eight months. When I watched the guy give a talk on You-Tube, I found him affable and someone I might not associate with what his writing reveals. Without this guy, or someone playing a similar role this doesn’t get done.


    • But protest it to who? Whenever I contact my political representatives all I get in return is a form letter stating that they will keep my opinion in mind should the issue ever come up for a vote (and that is only IF I get anything in return), and then multitudes of requests for political contributions. Our government doesn’t care about the people of this country, the environment, or anything else that does not put money in their pockets. It’s too bad you can’t round up government employees with helicopters and put them into holding pens where they can do no more harm. I fear I will live long enough to see wild horses and burros, as well as several other species, become extinct at the hands of the US government and the other money grubbing individuals and corporations that are invasive species on this continent.


  4. Kindly leave those horses be. I believe in Nature first and.government last- if at all! A worthless parasite at best, a bad.cancer at worst! Government is only best when not.governing at all!


  5. Vickie,

    According to the research I’ve done which includes three papers that list the species of animals classified as non-indigenous, non-native, feral, exotic, alien, invasive, animal or plant species that have to the potential to cause harm to plants and plant products (and then it gets into human health, the agencies that are responsible for listing these species according to E.O. 13112 are FWS and APHIS. Under the IPPC itself, the countries agricultural agency is responsible listing species that are not on the main list. Furthermore, in both E.O. 13112 and the 1997 IPPC these agencies are responsible for providing an authentic source for their designations. USDA had a source listed when I first looked over a year ago. They had a broken link to Massey University and the University of Waikota, where our horse mythologist just happened to spend some time. But I think the New Zealanders were onto him because the link to their site from USDA did not work, and if you went through the front door at Massy University, underneath the blurb, were the words for New Zealand only.

    And I hate to bring this up, but there are members in Congress that have sat on these committees for Interior and Agriculture for years, and after finding the evidence, I cannot help but wonder if they did not get where they are to prevent any of the essential questions that may have been asked from being addressed.

    I had an advantage because I did not have a personal relationship with the people who are ultimately responsible for this, so I didn’t have a bias that “or he would never do that,”—I had a bias that no one would ever do this, but once it became clear that someone had, I just following the written word. When I watched the same scientist lecture on YouTube, I found him rather affable—which explains that the good will he has from people who know him have placed him above suspicion. But there are far too many documents with his name on them that have the words horse and eradication, and too many details that put him places where he could have pulled this off.

    FWS should be banned from ever using the word “considers.” This is how they prevaricate. We could all consider that the sky is pink. Would our consideration of the sky make the sky pink? No.

    So Vickie, if you were going to make a personal appearance, I would suggest Secretary Vilsack. USDA/APHIS/WS did a paper in 2007 on Managing Invasive Vertebrates that listed the species of interest and some of the ways the government has tried to kill them.


    • Unfortunately, being a 2-horse-poor person from (one of the poorest and most corrupt states) the Midwest precludes any personal visits to Secretary Vilsack. And my representatives are not listening to anything but the agendas of major political contributors. I’m sure there must be some politicians in this country who care, but they are apparently few and far between. I’m sure there are many like me who feel frustrated and somewhat defeated by the efforts that we have been able to make having little to no impact. All of your research is very interesting and I’m glad you have the time and resources to keep everyone informed, but what can the average person who doesn’t live in the western states do? I’m heartbroken, discouraged and disgusted …


      • i feel pretty defeated in texas like you all i get from my rep.s is the form letters and when i call ,i get some idiot always telling me that they will pass along my concerns . i don’t know how i can get their attentions and or action on the bills pending . help!!!


      • The great state of Illinois, where our past governors make our license plates. We have two seasons here; winter and construction. State bird is the mosquito, and the motto is “you can’t get there from here”.


  6. Some observations from the article… I’m wondering how the ponies here can be accused of compacting the “sugar sands” to the detriment of other wildlife, since in my experience such sand is nearly impossible to compact and is continuously on the move in the dunes from natural environmental factors. In that light, if compaction IS an issue, why are not the hordes of tourists and their vehicles considered a primary cause? It seems to me 100 small ponies constantly on the move could do very little damage to sand dunes with only their hooves and their small sizes and weights. How about some real science here instead of speculation?


    • My goodness! IceSpots – doesn’t it sound like “the horses did it – not possible the cattle or sheep were to blame”? That’s the story the BLM tosses about! So now its these little ponies with their very small feet that are compacting sand! Common sense says the tourists & vehicles are to blame – but then common sense doesn’t even show up these days, does it? Real science – what would that be?


      • Maggie, hmmmm. Real science might include some actual quadrat sampling (using a few stakes in the sand primarily) in various areas including those widely used by human traffic, and also incorporate fencing off some small areas for comparison, then monitoring and recording what is found over time. I guess that is too difficult or expensive to pursue? It must be less expensive to pay for PZP, roundups and removals, and a little newsprint ink. I think this is one version of the “new math” at work.


  7. Thank goodness they are unlikely to wipe out the VA side without a serious fight. There are too many people profiting from the tourism. I’ve been to the Chincoteague roundups as a kid and it was fun. (Insanely crowded but fun.) People did take risks when the ponies were released. (Ponies trotting on the road, people right next to ponies taking pictures). But the ponies seemed to take it pretty well. I never saw a pony attack a person for food, though I did see a sea gull make off with someone’s sandwhich (while it was in their hand!)


  8. All Wildlife are safer AWAY from people and vice versa.
    Barbara Clarke, who runs DreamCatcher Wild Horse and Burro Sanctuary. says that,
    in a crisis situation where a Horse needs help, WILD Horses actually tend to remain more calm than domestic Horses….in most cases. She has had plenty of experience with both.



    Interesting (old) article here… mentioning this surprise:
    “Overgrazing has led to erosion, said 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, Kumer said.”

    Also found this, which mentions the income generated and the number of tourists:

    “A report released this week by the National Park Service shows that visitors to Assateague Island National Seashore spent $86,309,300 in communities near the park in 2012….

    “Here on Delmarva, 2.2 million visitors to Assateague Island spent $86 million in communities within 60 miles of the barrier island. The park saw 1.5 million non-local recreation visits that generated $76 million in non-local visitor spending.”

    The new math: 100 ponies are destroying the environment that over 2 million people traverse annually (I’m sure there are some off-season months so the impact is presumably greater during the summer months). Maybe we should demand the ponies wear flip-flops?


    • And this….

      “Beyond the wildlife though, Challenger says the barrier island’s pristine beaches and array of activities are what brings visitors in year after year. Tourists can bike, paddle, walk nature trails and enjoy the water — not to mention camp.

      ‘”It doesn’t matter how bad the mosquitos might be,” Challenger said. “You can’t get a spot on a weekend if you didn’t reserve it in advance.”

      One has to wonder how they define “pristine” in this context. Two million + tourists biking, paddling, walking and camping all over the island doesn’t sound like any definition I would use. Also have to wonder if the ponies are destroying everything (no mention here of the introduced deer), how that squares as well with “pristine” beaches. Even our western HMAs would suffer with that much human traffic in such a small area, Assateague is about 37 miles long, comprises just over 40,000 acres, and is roughly 65 square miles total.


Care to make a comment?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.