Shutdown Scuttles Annual Fall Assateague Island Pony Roundup in Virginia

By Brock Vergakis
|  Monday, Oct 7, 2013  |  Updated 6:50 PM EDT
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Wild ponies are herded into the Assateague Channel to for their annual swim to Chincoteague Island, on July 25, 2012. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

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A popular annual roundup of wild ponies on the Eastern Shore of Virginia has been canceled because of the federal government shutdown.

The Chincoteague Volunteer Fire Company had planned to conduct its fall roundup on Assateague Island on Friday and Saturday. The fire company manages a herd of roughly 130 ponies on a national wildlife refuge on the island, which has been closed to the public since the shutdown began last week.

“Fall Round Up has been cancelled due to the childish, idiotic actions of our government,” says a post on the fire company's Facebook page.

The fire company gives the ponies a medical checkup each year before winter. Denise Bowden, the fire company's incoming president, said the fire company could still access the island during the shutdown if a pony needed medical attention, but the annual roundup would need to be rescheduled.

“They're a national treasure, and now, just like the seashore, they're being blocked off to the public,” she said.

In recent years, the fall roundup has grown in popularity as a way to guarantee that tourists visiting the area will be able to see a pony, she said. The Chincoteague economy is largely built on tourism and the wild ponies play a crucial part in drawing visitors.

During the summer, tens of thousands of tourists flock to the area to watch the annual pony swim made famous by Marguerite Henry's 1947 novel “Misty of Chincoteague.”

While the fall roundup attracts smaller crowds, Bowden said several thousand people usually show up for the event.

“We put it on our website, and people make plans for this,” Bowden said. “For the public to not be able to access Assateague at this critical time when we're having a beautiful fall, it's going to hurt. It's definitely going to hurt.”

In addition to Assateague Island being shut off to visitors, local businesses have also noticed an impact from nearby NASA's Wallops Flight Facility being closed.

“I think the hotels and restaurant here are definitely noticing a difference,” said Suzanne Taylor, executive director of the Chincoteague Chamber of Commerce. “We've talked to some people from different accommodations that have had cancellations. There are a lot of engineers that come in to work for a variety of projects with NASA.”

Local businesses are hoping an oyster festival scheduled for Saturday in Chincoteague will still help blunt the negative effects of Assateague Island's closure, at least for a day.

“We're just all trying to be positive and hope they'll get (the government) open,” Taylor said.

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