The state of Maryland is doubling down on its efforts to protect the wild horses of Assateague Island from vehicle strikes on the island.
The state’s First Lady, Yumi Hogan, joined Maryland Natural Resources Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio and others on the coastal island to urge island visitors to drive carefully, in the wake of a vehicle accident that killed a mare and injured her foal, as Bay Bulletin reported last month.
A new outreach campaign called “Give Wild Horses a Brake” aims to reduce horse injuries on the the island, which is divided into Maryland’s Assateague State Park and the federal Assateague Island National Seashore.
The free-roaming herd of horses is a big part of the beach’s appeal—it’s a unique experience for visitors. But because people sometimes feed the horses or encourage them to come near campgrounds, the horses are no longer afraid of people or cars, which leaves them in harm’s way on the island roads.
On top of that, it’s difficult to see the horses at night or in low light. And unlike deer, which dart across the road, the horses tend to stand still in the middle.
“The ponies of Assateague are a treasure to Maryland and the nation, but it can be easy to forget that they are wild animals,” First Lady Yumi Hogan said. “I am pleased to see the efforts our Park Service is taking to help reduce harm. We urge drivers to be alert and observe the rules of the road and other park regulations to protect the ponies.”
The Assateague Island Alliance also presented the First Lady with a conservation award for her help in protecting wildlife like the island herd.
New and ongoing efforts by the Maryland Park Service and National Park Service include speed bumps and expanded crosswalks in the park campground and highway signs along the Route 611 and park entrance road. The state park entrance speed limit has been lowered to 25 miles per hour. The National Park section of Assateague will also reduce speed limits to 15 miles per hour in several areas
Visitors to the island are reminded to drive slowly, follow posted safety signs, stay at least 40 feet from horses, store all food properly, and constantly be on the lookout for pedestrians, bicycles, horses, and other wildlife while driving through the park,” Assateague Island National Seashore Superintendent Hugh Hawthorne says.
When it comes to food and trash, it’s imperative that visitors and campers put all food and pet food securely stored in a closed cooler with a strap or in a zippered bag. Horses will get into open-top bags and coolers, attracted by food, drinks, pet food, or trash. People should dispose of all trash properly.
The Depatment of Natural Resources has new handouts with information on safely viewing horses, and seasonal rangers and volunteers are traveling the island to monitor for any dangerous horse/human interactions.
In a pilot program, the Maryland Park Service is also installing campsite cooler storage boxes to encourage campers to keep food where horses won’t be as attracted to them—as is done in the national park campground.
–Meg Walburn Viviano