Ghost horses’ indeed – a spectacular and emotive, almost Greek tragedy style, mask showcased by a protestor at the January 2014 demonstrations in downtown Calgary. Photo by Pam Asheton

Ghost horses’ indeed – a spectacular and emotive, almost Greek tragedy style, mask showcased by a protestor at the January 2014 demonstrations in downtown Calgary. Photo by Pam Asheton

Horses and heartache. Saturday morning, brushing out Mops (who’s been shedding his winter coat ferociously for over two weeks now). He raised his head and looked straight towards the mountains and westwards, which is where this year’s gather of wildies from the Ghost and Waiparous areas along the Alberta foothills is happening. He stood there, for the longest time, head held high, listening, listening, listening and as I moved around and faced westwards too a great weight of what indeed will be ‘ghost horses’ moved into my heart and ached there.

Mops was one of 2014’s capture horses, found on private land with a mare and yearling filly, all of them seriously malnourished after the brutal winter of harsh temperatures and deep snow that made pawing through it for any grasses a marathon. Never have I seen a horse eat as he did – four months of nose-not-lifting-from-hay-slices slung over the fenceline and his hard black feet now show that, with their almost grown out ring grooved deep where nutrition kicked in again.

The 2014 ‘capture’ (Alberta Environmental Sustainable Resource Development – AESRD) thus named a cull that was planned for over 200 hundred animals in the Sundre area – an acrimonious heated polarized argument that raged over social media sites, print, radio and television beginning January that year. When the ‘season’ officially closed three months later in March, many took deeply bruised breaths, and hoped progress had been made, perhaps more humane, more openly transparent decisions, ethical opportunities for the future. There’s much behind-the-political-closed doors of Alberta’s provincial government offices these days that has not been made public in decisions that were made afterwards from April to December.

Eventually, though, by February 2015, AESRD announced another exodus of wildies from their free-roaming territories in the Ghost and Waiparous areas north-west of Cochrane, somewhere around 50-60 head culled, moved out…. which, after the 2011 operations in this area which took out a staggering 216 from those areas leaving only a few wary bands that even local ranchers and outfitters had trouble finding, the idea of a population explosion happening since 2011 is also scientifically and numerically impossible. Anyone who rides up in those areas will tell you that, and Darrell Glover, of the social media advocacy group Help Alberta Wildies – flying with experienced spotters on board – could find only scattered individuals here and there.

Smoke and mirrors, untold real motives, the debate is raging all over again. The Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS) are officially the adopting operation now endorsed by AESRD, who have taken in limited numbers of younger stock. Others include a mature stallion who is beating the hell out of the holding pens at the Innisfail sale grounds – according to a local householder nearby – will be sold at auction this upcoming Saturday. Bidders, with their hearts in the right places, may not realize by bidding up against themselves (out of the bracket of the $ per pound amount the kill buyers will have set themselves to make a profit on purchases) they will be indirectly justifying the whole process.

It’s a sad end to animals who just happen to be in the cross-hairs, in a ferocious argument where the entire validity is on opinion, not hard science. I’ve ridden in those areas deep backcountry, before all these big numbers started. One glorious fall day a neat bay stud trotted briskly out to see what we were up to (closing down a summer outfitter’s camp in fact), with smoky sunshine and latent reds and goldens of a fall landscape. My outfitting friend motioned with his hand, grinning.

“He’s parked his herd out of sight,” he gestured, indicating all around. In the silence of the mountains and muskeg you could hear rustles and movements, then the stud wheeled around, out of the clearing, his band joining up and away. We never did see them, but the memory is crystal clear, as it is with many others who memorize their wildlife encounters – earlier that same day we were right under the golden eagle migration route, and a silver tipped grizzly earlier that morning too.

Eco-tourism, photographers, outfitters with special expeditions – even the stupendously successful idea adapted a bit, say, of the American Extreme Mustang makeovers that get top trainers showcasing their talents – are bigger picture concepts. Taking terrified horses that are indeed wild animals, re-wilded over decades (they graze differently from domestic, interact with deer and elk differently, will use trees as filters for viewing, even adapting deer mannerisms for scenting predators) into stock trailers and thence to holding pens at slaughter houses is, frankly, a hugely unimaginative – and ethically not humane in the slightest – decision.

And, is this government listening to its voters? I wonder, given that wildlife and wild horse photographer Duane Starr tells me he had over 80,000 hits after posting a suggested anti-cull letter to environment minister Kyle Fawcett – and those numbers are fairly average from other social media sites on the wild horse debate accessed in the last three days.