ASSATEAGUE — Two men were charged with week in connection with the shooting death of one of Assateague’s famed wild horses during a two-day firearm deer season on the barrier island last January.
Assateague Island National Seashore officials announced on Tuesday charges have been levied against two individuals, one for shooting the horse during the controlled hunt and the other for providing false information during the investigation. Justin B. Eason, 26, of Federalsburg, has been charged with illegal taking of wildlife, use of a weapon that endangers persons or property, destroying wildlife from its natural state and knowingly giving a false or fictitious report.
Another man, John A. Eason, 51, of Preston, has been charged with knowingly giving a false or fictitious report. Each of the violations carries a maximum sentence of six months in jail and a $5,000 fine. Last January, one of the wild horses inhabiting Assateague Island was found dead, the victim of a gunshot wound, during a planned, two-day deer hunt on the barrier island. The 28-year-old horse was found dead by a hunter on Jan. 15 and reported to park rangers the following day.
For several months, Assateague Island park rangers conducted a lengthy investigation including interviewing several hunters and witnesses and collecting forensic evidence. The two men charged in the shooting of the horse were identified from a list of 140 hunters participating in the controlled, two-day deer hunt.
Chief Ranger Ted Morlock this week praised the investigating park rangers and their partners, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the National Park Service’s Special Agent Offices, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and its local field agent and forensics laboratory. Morlock also called the incident an isolated one.
“I want to thank the many hunters who continue to safely hunt at Assateague Island National Seashore,” he said. “The success of our hunting program has always depended on the cooperation of hunters and our shared interest in the resource, good sportsmanship and ethical hunting practices.”
The horse that was killed was a 28-year-old mare with the identification number N2BH. While some of the wild ponies on Assateague are known by regular names, each is assigned a letter-number combination linked to the specific herds that allow park officials to track their whereabouts and breeding habits, for example.
During her lifetime, N2BH foaled six times and had 11 second or third generation offspring. In recent years, N2BH had been treated annually with contraceptives as part of a broader effort to maintain the size of the wild horse population at a sustainable level.
The two-day January deer hunt on Assateague is part of the National Seashore’s annual hunting program that includes several gun seasons during the fall and early winter. In addition to providing a unique and popular recreational opportunity, the hunting program is used to manage resident deer populations.
Two species of deer are found on Assateague including the native white-tailed deer and the non-native sika deer, introduced to the island during the 1920s. Without the control provided by hunting, the non-native sika deer population would quickly grow and harm the native island environment. Hunting was authorized on Assateague by the federal legislation that established the National Seashore in 1965.
While there has been some discussion about reducing the number of hunters allowed on the barrier island during the planned deer hunts, Morlock said the incident last January will not have bearing on that decision.
“This unfortunate incident does not reflect on the hundreds of responsible hunters who come to Assateague every year and will not adversely affect decisions pertaining to our hunting programs,” he said.