Eastern vs. Western Wild Horse Management

A mare from the Assateague wild horse herd, Ms. Macky, recently gave birth to a bay pinto colt on June 21.  The National Parks Service is allowing the herd to grow from their current numbers of 76 to up to 100 based on the available space and forage. Photo courtesy NPS.

By Jamie Henneman

In the moist marsh grounds of two small islands in Virginia and Maryland, bands of wild horses eat salt water cord grass and swish at flies and mosquitos as the day grows warmer.  On a hot day, the horses may leave their secluded forests to go to the beach front and cool off in the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.  These horses have come to dominate the public imaginations of the Chincoteague and Assateague Islands where the herds are managed through a combination of public and private efforts.  It is a management style that works due to the island’s secluded nature, as well as a lack of any predators or competitive uses for the land the ponies occupy.

The pony herd numbers on the 8,800 acre island are capped by their federal grazing permits, in contrast to wild horses in the West where federal managers recently noted the wild horse and burro population on public lands was estimated at approximately 81,950 animals – more than triple the size the land can support along with other legally mandated uses.

The Chincoteague and Assateague wild horse herds, often called ‘pony’ herds due to their diminutive 12-13 hands or shorter height, were popularized in the children’s fiction book, “Misty of Chincoteague.”  Legend has it that the horses are the decedents of horses that broke free from Spanish shipwrecks in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Others speculate they come from domestic horses that were turned loose on the island by early settlers and later became feral.

No matter their actual background, the ponies have immortalized themselves in the American imagination.  An annual event, the Pony Penning, held by the Chincoteague Fire Department has also won the ponies worldwide fame.

Every summer in late July, the Chincoteague Island ponies are rounded up for the Pony Penning by the Chincoteague Fire Department’s “Saltwater Cowboys” that then sort the foals off for auction.  On average, 60 foals a year are sold.  Buyers may take the foals home or participate in a limited “buyback” program that allows the foals to stay in the herd and the proceeds are donated to the fire department.

The event enables the Chincoteague Fire Department to pay for new equipment, as well as offset maintenance costs.  The practice began in 1925 after the Chincoteague town hall authorized the fire department to auction off foals from the herd after a fire devastated the town due to inadequate equipment.  The price a foal brings at auction varies but can sometimes top $20,000.

“The highest amount a foal has sold for was one of our ‘buyback’ foals that sold for $25,000 in 2015,” Chincoteague Fire Department Media Relations spokesperson Denise Bowden said.

Genetic Diversity and Herd Numbers…

The Chincoteague herd grazes on the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife grazing permit that allows for 150 horses.  To prevent inbreeding in the closed herd, Bowman said the Fire Department keeps detailed breeding records.

“We keep meticulous records of who breeds who.  There are several bands within the herd.  We mix them up from time to time,” Bowman explained.

The National Parks Service (NPS) that manages the Assateague herd of 76 horses also focuses on maintaining herd diversity.

“We recently collected tissue samples from the current population to let us know how much genetic diversity loss we have each year. With 80 to 100 horses, we have an acceptable rate of diversity loss, but we always have the option of bringing in a pony from another one of the barrier islands,” NPS Biological Science Technician Allison Turner said.  “We are currently allowing for some growth in the Assateague herd so it can reach that 80 to 100 horse threshold.”

Mares in both groups of horses are given PZP fertility control shots that temporarily prevent pregnancy for one year.

Working in the West…

While foal sales and the use of PZP are keeping the island pony herds under control, federal managers of wild horses in the West are struggling.  The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) noted on its website that it is using PZP in “some locations” to help control herd numbers but “absent of natural predators, wild horse herds can double in just four to five years and quickly outgrow the ability of the land to support them.”  The agency recently noted it has a “chronic overpopulation” problem.

“High costs and a growing number of unadopted and unsold animals in BLM holding facilities have hindered the agency’s ability to reduce over-population in recent years,” the BLM said.

The BLM is currently providing adoption incentives to qualified adopters of wild horses and burros of $500 per animal within 60 days of the adoption date.  An additional $500 is provided within 60 days of titling for each animal, which normally occurs one year from the adoption date.  The incentive is available for all untrained animals that are eligible for adoption, including animals at BLM facilities, off-site events, or on the agency’s Online Corral website.  Adopters pay a minimum $25 adoption fee per animal.

“We understand that adopting a wild horse or burro represents a commitment.  The incentive is designed to help with the adopter’s initial training and humane care,” BLM Deputy Director of Programs and Policy Brian Steed said.  “I encourage anyone who has considered adopting a wild horse or burro to join the thousands of owners who have provided good homes to more than 245,000 wild horses or burros since 1971.”

Island Pony Herd Health

Aside from mare birth control, few other interventions are made in the island pony herds, allowing them to stay as wild as possible.  Injured or sick horses are monitored to see if emergency veterinary care is needed.

“If an injury can be healed and the pony can recover, we take great care to get it the medical attention it needs.  If the vet determines that the pony cannot recover, we humanely euthanize the pony.  There are also cases though where older ponies go off and die on their own,” Bowman said, noting the Chincoteague Fire Department can spend as much as $30,000 per year on vet bills.

Nature is allowed to take its course in the herds and horses are not given additional feed or nutritional supplements.

“We have around four to five percent mortality in the Assateague herd each year,” Turner explained.  “We don’t do any supplemental feeding and we don’t intervene just because a horse gets skinny in the winter.  If the horse is dying, we will euthanize it for humane reasons.”

For horses with this much public interest, Turner said one of the biggest challenges is convincing the public to give the horses their space.

“Our biggest problem is convincing people that these horses are not tame, domestic horses but wild horses,” Turner said.  “We have a ‘Pony Patrol’ of volunteers along with some hired staff that help us with educational efforts.”


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