10 wild ponies, Sika deer killed on Assateague

January 06, 1992|By Patricia Meisol

Ten wild ponies, possibly a third of those that roamed the narrow northern end of Assateague Island, died during the severe northeaster that ravaged the Maryland and Delaware coasts Saturday.

The deaths were the first in at least a quarter-century under such circumstances on the rugged, low-lying barrier island, authorities said. All of the island is either national or state parkland.

"It hit so fast. I would suspect they were caught without being able to get away from it," said Roger Rector, superintendent of Assateague Island National Seashore. "And of course, there is no way you can get them off the island."

He said the island has not experienced such a severe storm since 1962, when a March northeaster caused extensive damage along the same Maryland, Delaware and Virginia coastal areas.

At least several rare Sika deer, which inhabit the island, also died in Saturday's storm, he said, which hit at high tide, accompanied by wind gusts as high as 70 mph.

The ponies were most likely from a subherd of 30 that live on the northern tip of the 37-mile long island, a stretch that in some places is only 300 feet wide, Mr. Rector said. Those ponies are occasionally visible across an inlet to vacationers in Ocean City. They are among 149 cared for by the National Park Service in Maryland.

A separate herd of 139 ponies owned by the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department lives on the much wider Virginia part of the island and was believed safe yesterday, fire officials said. The Assateague and Chincoteague ponies were made famous by Marguerite Henry's 1947 children's book, "Misty of Chincoteague."

The dead ponies probably panicked and could not escape to high ground, said Ann Bell, district naturalist with the National Park Service in Maryland. "We are picking them off the mainland," she said. "Most were washed in toward the shore."

Mr. Rector said the ponies would be buried back on the island: "We will put them to rest on their home ground."

Willis Dize, president of the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which runs the annual wild pony swim each fall, said he had accounted for most, but not all, of the fire department's herd in a walking survey of the Virginia end of Assateague Island yesterday.

He said fire officials would resume their count today when high waters subside.

The island, much of it flooded and covered in debris, was evacuated. Authorities expect it to be closed for at least a week. "There is quite a bit of damage," Ms. Bell said.

Flooding prevented officials from touring much of the island to assess financial damages. Throughout the island, dunes disappeared, parking lots were covered with sand, nature trails caved in and 2-foot-high piles of debris -- sticks, grass and trees -- covered roadways, said John Schroer, manager of the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The Maryland state park at Assateague suffered major dune erosion.

"Basically, our dunes are gone," said J. C. Barbely, assistant manager for maintainance at Assateague State Park. He estimated damage at the 765-acre, 2-mile-long park at about $3 million. Mr. Barbely also said he found one Sika deer dead, possibly drowned, but said most park wildlife appeared to have "made out fairly well."

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