A Gnawing Problem On Assateague Island

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 16, 2006

ASSATEAGUE ISLAND, Md. -- What do you do when one of your natural treasures starts eating all the others?

That's the National Park Service's dilemma on this storied barrier island. Proof of its problem can be found on a spongy stretch of salt marsh, where one section is fenced off by barbed wire.

Inside the fence, the island's native smooth cordgrass is growing thickly, a foot tall. Outside it, the grass is cropped nearly to the roots.

"Inside. Outside. A lot different," said Mark Sturm, a Park Service ecologist, gesturing at the denuded muck. The culprit is obvious: There's only one animal on Assateague that can't get through the fence.

"This is all horses," Sturm said.

Yes. Those horses. About 140 wild ponies live on the Maryland half of the island -- less famous than their cousins in Virginia, who star in the annual Chincoteague pony penning, but still a major part of the Assateague mystique.

Now, Park Service officials say, the horse population is eating away at the plants that underpin rare coastal ecosystems here. They're considering a radical solution: selling or relocating as much as a third of the Maryland herd.

"There is no doubt in my mind," Sturm said, "that in the absence of action, things are only going to get worse."

Assateague Island stretches 37 miles along the Atlantic Coast of the Eastern Shore, from Chincoteague, Va., almost to Ocean City, Md. In between, officials say, is the kind of wilderness that has become rare on the East Coast: nearly pristine sand dunes, salt marshes and coastal forests.

But much as scientists treasure the island's rare birds and flora, it is neither the piping plover nor the sea beach amaranth plant that has imbedded Assateague in childhood memories and young-adult fiction.

It's the ponies.

Horses have lived on the island since the 1600s, possibly descended from livestock that farmers stashed here to avoid taxes. They became famous in 1947 with the publication of "Misty of Chincoteague." The book celebrates an annual ritual in which horses on the Virginia side of the island are rounded up and made to swim across a channel to Chincoteague. There, some are auctioned off to benefit the town's volunteer fire department.

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