Maryland First Lady Yumi Hogan joined the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Assateague Island National Seashore staff, and other guests at Assateague State Park, urging island visitors to drive carefully and “Give Wild Horses a Brake,” part of a new outreach campaign design to reduce horse injuries and #ProtectOurPonies.
A freely roaming herd of wild ponies is one of the major attractions at Assateague, a barrier island that is divided into Maryland’s Assateague State Park and the federal Assateague Island National Seashore. Unfortunately, humans feeding the horses or otherwise encouraging them to come near campgrounds and vehicles have left the horses unafraid of people and cars, making them more susceptible to dangerous situations on the Assateague roads.
The First Lady, Maryland DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, Maryland State Senator Mary Beth Carozza, and members of the nonprofit friend’s group Assateague Island Alliance visited the State Park on Friday. The Alliance also presented the First Lady with a conservation award for her continued support and work protecting wildlife.
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.”
A vehicle strike even at low speed can cause serious and even fatal injuries for the Assateague horses. Drivers traveling at night or in low light along park roads can have difficulty seeing the horses. Unlike deer, which may dart across the road, horses regularly stand completely still in the road, giving drivers little opportunity to react.
“Our park staff and volunteers work hard every year to make Assateague Island a great experience for hundreds of thousands of visitors, as well as protect the wildlife that makes it so unique,” Maryland DNR Secretary Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio said. “We ask our guests to help us keep our wild horses safe for the continued enjoyment of this wonderful natural resource.”
The First Lady and Secretary Riccio reviewed new and ongoing efforts to help protect the ponies. Both the Maryland Park Service and National Park Service have invested in strategies to reduce the risk for the horses. Assateague State Park has installed four speed bumps and expanded crosswalks in the park campground, and installed highway messaging signs along the Route 611 causeway/park entrance road.
The State Highway Administration lowered the speed limit along the park entrance road across Verrazano Bridge to 25 miles per hour.
The National Park Service will add speed feedback signs, displaying driver speed, on the causeway and along Bayberry Drive and reduce speed limits to 15 miles per hour at several areas within the national park.
“The National Park Service, and Assateague Island National Seashore, would like to thank First Lady Yumi Hogan for her work promoting safety and safe horse/human interactions on Assateague Island. 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 said. “Together we can make this a safe environment for both visitors and wildlife. The National Park Service will continue to work with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to ensure a continued safe and enjoyable experience for all coming to the island.”
Visitors should also remember that close contact with the horses is also a danger to humans, as the Assateague ponies can bite and kick, and like most wild mammals, can carry rabies.
Park officials urge visitors to Assateague to follow these rules:
- Always stay at least 40 feet away from the horses, and if they approach, move away
- Never touch, feed, or harass the horses
- Keep all food and pet food securely stored in a closed cooler with a strap or in a zippered bag- no open top bags. Horses can open coolers and will get into bags with food, drinks, pet food, or trash — creating a potential health risk that could be fatal to the horses.
- Dispose of all trash properly — horses will eat plastic, wrappings, or even glass if it still contains food.
- Drive slowly and always be alert for wildlife. Follow all posted speed limits and especially at night, go slow.
- Use only designated parking areas to view wildlife.
DNR created new handouts this year providing information for safely viewing horses and directing visitors who pull over along the causeway to use approved parking areas.
Assateague State Park also hired additional seasonal rangers and reallocated staff and equipment — plus a team of two volunteer rovers — to conduct pony patrol activities, including daily monitoring of where bands are located; documentation and updates on any incidents or items of concern; use of techniques as approved by NPS biologists to move horses away from busy day-use beach area, roadways, campsites, and other areas where the potential for horse/human interactions are dangerous; and other activities.
The Maryland Park Service is also piloting the installation of campsite cooler storage boxes to keep food where horses are less likely to be attracted to them. These boxes are modeled after those in the national park campground, and staff are monitoring their effectiveness.
These are just a few of the ongoing efforts to keep Assateague Island safe for both the wild horses and the people who come to enjoy seeing them.