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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Farewell Misty, of Assateague No Longer

When one knows thee, then alien there is none, then no door is shut.
—Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore: 1913

On paper, those words might sound nice, comforting and politically correct to us humans, but down on that sliver of sand that serves as a barrier island for mainland behind Assateague Island, it would indeed ring hollow to the “aliens” thereabouts.

We have come to know them, but to us they remain alien — though custodians of that 37-mile stretch of island prefer to refer to them as invasives.

And they suggest some of them leave.

The wild ponies of Assateague would get the better of the deal, for they would depart on their hooves for a distant family stable.

Already, and for many years now, the Sika deer have left field dressed by hunters and headed for a pot in a kitchen somewhere on the mainland.

Passions run high when the forced exodus of both is mentioned. The ponies have been on the island longer, becoming so adapted to its inhospitable environment that they would probably be alien anywhere else.

The Sikas share with the ponies status as a tourist attraction, though not to the same degree, and they are valued by challenge-seeking hunters. They also share with the ponies their mode of introduction to Assateague, seeing both were delivered there by Europeans who themselves, when you get down to it, are aliens on the island.

But, man (and to be politically correct, perhaps I should add woman) rules, so now it’s time to correct the mistakes if the fragile cay is to remain a barrier to the mainland for the foreseeable future. Some day beyond the foreseeable future it will vanish like all barrier islands. But we humans are bound to do our best to delay that day as long as possible.

Alien Appetites
So some of the ponies have to go; the same with the miniature deer, though in different ways. Also, in different ways their appetites are responsible for their own problems as well as for the problems of the sandy island that for countless animal generations has been the home of their herds.

In small packs in daytime, the ponies — an estimated 150 to 200 of them — graze primarily on dunes and other important and scarce vegetation. Without this vegetation and its roots, the dunes lose much of their cohesive characteristics and wash away in Atlantic storms, of which there are many on the island. Also, without beach grasses, dunes would blow away; billions of grains of sand would end up in Sinepuxent Bay.

The Sika deer — of which there are 350 or more — are more nocturnal and wary. They feed on other vegetation, primarily marsh offerings, farther from the beach. But they also take their toll on the ecology of the island. Regulated hunting has long been allowed, but the deer remain — and eat, eat and eat.

On Assateague, there really isn’t that much to eat. Food and habitat is scarce thereabouts, and there are many other creatures of the wild that depend on what little that grows in the sparse sandy earth, things like marsh and song birds, railbirds, waterfowl, fish and shellfish. So something has gotta give.

The Sika problem is somewhat relieved by hunters, and probably if overseers had their way they would not be unhappy to see the last of the deer bid them farewell.

Of course that is not possible with the ponies, which incidentally are of different stock than the farther south on the island, Chincoteague ponies of the book Misty of Chincoteague fame. But the feds, which own the hog’s share of the island, are probing the possibility of culling their numbers by 35 to 60.

Even that has created concerns among some vocal animal-rights activists, and probably many visitors side with them. The ponies that move about freely in small packs are the big drawing card for many of the island’s visitors; afterall, they are commonly referred to as the free spirits of the seashore.

Human Tinkering
In the off-months when the visitors are mostly gone, take a look at the ponies and the desolate dunes they roam. It’s hard to realize that in the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Recreation suggestions for Assateague in 1963 were private ownership of a four and a half mile stretch zoned commercial — with boardwalks and beaches capable of “entertaining high density crowds of 10,000 to the mile.” Just what we need, another Ocean City!

Wait, that’s not all. The balance of the area proposed to be set aside for development called for “the use of 5,000 single residential lot owners and their guests.” Still, another Ocean City. Now, a tad more than 40 years later, there’s talk of kicking out 35 to 60 ponies. No room at the inn.

But once humans have messed things up by introducing aliens to a new and different environment, remedies unpopular as these are called for, as we have found with nutria on the marshes of Dorchester County. Think of all the other pesky alien species around us right here in Maryland: the mute swan, the English sparrow, the carp and the snakehead to name a few.

The Sika deer arrived at Assateague from Japan in a roundabout way early in the 20th century. It was figured they would be ideal for a private zoo in Dorchester County. Of course fences are like records: made to be broken. The deer eventually were in the wild and multiplying, and a small pack ended up at Assateague as part of a Boy Scout project.

Though in more recent years the theory has been increasingly questioned, I prefer to think the ponies (much different than those of today) arrived on the island when a Spanish galleon was shipwrecked within swimming distance. Possibly more accurate is the contention the horses were stashed on the island by colonials or were taken there so as not to be counted at tax time. Of course, not all were reclaimed.

In the harsh life on the island, the ponies have evolved into stunted short-legged, heavy-chested, shaggy creatures, sometimes of ill temperament, and not above raiding the food at campers’ tables.

We humans never learn that tinkering with living things, plant or animal, within the environment will not infrequently pose problems not easy to correct; perhaps we should remember this lesson as we consider bringing Asian oysters to the Chesapeake.

What we’re inclined to call progress can be a misnomer — as we could have been told by the Indians, who were much better stewards of the land than we are. Yes, we are the intrusive aliens who in the name of progress have created the environmental quagmire that surrounds us today. What’s going on at Assateague is just America in miniature. Enough said.

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