At Chincoteague, Covid-19 Closes Spring Roundup to the Public

Apr 15, 2020

Ponies munching on grass near a pond at the refuge.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Every April, hundreds flock to see the Saltwater Cowboys round up famous wild ponies for a bi-annual health check.

But this year, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be different.

Last week, the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge announced the annual roundup would not be open to the public so people won't be tempted to congregate at the corrals.

Denise Bowden is spokeswoman for the Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Department, which owns the herd of 160 ponies that live at the refuge. She said they had already been asking people to stay home.  "We're really asking for the crowds not to come and we're really hoping they'll do the right thing and not come."

This year's health checks are particularly important as veterinarians are carefully monitoring the ponies to see if an experimental vaccine administered throughout last year is working. During the last three years, eight wild ponies, all mares, had to be put down after suffering from a painful disease known as swamp cancer.  "So far, it seems to be doing really well," Bowden says. "We didn't have an extremely wet, rainy end of summer last year. I'm thinking that between that and the vaccine, we're on the right path here."

Pythium, the microorganism that causes swamp cancer, can be found all over the world, thriving in tropical and subtropical regions like the Gulf Coast. It's is a disease of plants too and similar to the organism that caused the potato blight in Ireland in the 1800s. With climate change it's moving north.

Richard Hansen is a research veterinarian whose small Oklahoma-based company created treatments and the vaccine.  "The April one is a pivotal time in the health of these animals. You're boosting their immunity just before the season when they might be exposed to a lot of things," Hansen says. "So we're cautiously optimist that we're helping these herds."

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hansen won't be traveling to the roundup. And two scientists who have been studying the organism at the refuge have had to put their work on hold because their universities, like others, closed down as a precaution. The town of Chincoteague closed visitor accommodations like hotels, B & Bs and restaurants in late March.

Fortunately, the local veterinarian will be conducting the vaccinations and health checks as he always does. The volunteer fire department is also limiting participation of Saltwater Cowboys, who round up the ponies for their checkup. They will target about a dozen ponies that have yet to be inoculated. Five foals were born over the winter and more on the way.  "We're going to have a very slim crew, but we'll get it done," Denise Bowden says optimistically.  "We've had to do this before under other circumstances."

AmeriCorps students Sabrina Johnkins (pointing), Lindsen Hubbell and Yuling Lok discuss new fending with Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge supervisory ranger Michael Dixon.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

And there's one more update from the refuge straight from the horse’s mouth.  Besides supplemental food, ponies like to tear up and munch on refuge grasses all day long. Overgrazing is a problem, says refuge wildlife biologist Kevin Holcomb.  "The way they pick the grass from the marshes. They'll go right down to very, very small stubble."

So, in February, a small team of AmeriCorps students replaced the old barbed-wire fencing to allow grass to grow back, especially along refuge shorelines that are eroding. And it will prevent accidental cuts to ponies, an entryway for the deadly microorganism.  "I'm tickled to death that they're removing as much barbed-wire as possible over there,: Denise Bowden says. "What they used back in the old days, they had no idea what trouble it could cause in today's life."

A note on closures from the US Fish and Wildlife Service:   On Friday April 17, the Refuge will close at 2 p.m. to allow Saltwater Cowboys the opportunity to set up and move animals into the South Corral for health checks. On Saturday April 18, the Refuge will open at approximately noon, opening earlier if the South Corral work is completed and ponies are released to the grazing area. However, the Service Road from the Wildlife Loop to the North Corral will be closed April 18 for the remainder of the day to allow for health check operations at the North Corral.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.