The plight of wild horses across North America has been covered at length by mainstream media, documentaries, fictional films, and novels. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the United States is under fire for their round-up of mustangs, and controversial adoption programs. Closer to home, the wild horses that roam the grasslands of British Columbia have also been under pressure and threat for centuries from ranchers and government types who seem determined to cast the animals as the bad guy in the ecosystem war.

Book cover.A new book seeks to change that. The Wild Horses of the Chilcotin, Their History and Future  by Wayne McCrory explores the contentious debate about the fate of these wild horses and the ongoing conflict of interest between conservationist and ranchers. Already #1 on the weekly BC bestseller list, the compelling book is a must-read for horse lovers and conservation-minded people.

McCrory is an acclaimed wildlife biologist and a registered professional biologist (RPBio) in British Columbia with over 50 years of experience in wildlife research, environmental impact, and cumulative effects studies. The son of a miner and prospector, McCrory grew up in the mining town of New Denver, BC. He is currently finalizing the Chilcotin wild horse genetic study with Dr. Gus Cothran at Texas A & M University and is doing a technical review of the Alberta Feral Horse Management Plan for Zoochek Canada. Throughout most of his career, McCrory studied grizzly and black bears, making him known in scientific circles as a bear biologist.

Horse-Canada spoke to McCrory about the issues plaguing wild horses in Canada, and why it’s time for Canadians to appeal to their government leaders to help protect these herds.

HORSE CANADA: You began studying the Chilcotin horses in 2001. How did you learn about the horses and what made you think they needed to be studied?

WAYNE McCRORY: I first learned about Chilcotin wild horses in my boyhood from cowboy books. I found out more when I did a wildlife impact study in the lower Chilcotin grasslands for the proposed Moran Dam on the Fraser River, and later from the Toosey (Tl’esqox) First Nation, who showed me a pile of old horse bones from a herd that was shot in the Chilcotin grasslands during the bounty hunt era. At the time, in 1995, I was doing an environmental impact study for the Toosey of the Canadian Military on the Chilcotin Military Block.

Through all of this work, I developed a love affair with the Chilcotin grasslands and canyons. When I returned to the Chilcotin in 2001 it was to study grizzly bears in the remote Brittany Triangle as part of an ecological impact study of logging plans for the pine forests. It was the first time I ever saw Chilcotin wild horses and my first reaction, having learned about the destructiveness on ecosystems by feral goats while working in the Galapagos Islands, was one of surprise and shock that they still existed in the wilds as an alien species not belonging on the land. However, as our field research evolved, our study team noted no evidence of over-population and over-grazing of the numerous wild meadows that dotted the Brittany Triangle Plateau. I also learned from the Tsilhqot’in that these horses had been here for a long time and were a revered part of their culture and way of life. I also began to see that they fit into the ecosystem without harming it.

When I finished my report and presented it to the Xeni/Gwet’in Tsilhqot’in Community and their Rights and Title law firm, I recommended the whole Brittany Triangle be a wild horse preserve. The First Nations and their law firm thought that was a good idea and that’s how the Eagle Lake Henry ?Elegesi Qiyus (Cayuse) Wild Horse Preserve was born – North America’s largest wild horse preserve, on 770,000 hectares (1.9 million acres). Although it is still not recognized by the BC provincial and Federal governments, the Xeni Gwet’in have managed to keep it pristine.

How have these wild horses contributed to a healthy ecosystem in the region?

The wild horse herds contribute many benefits to natural ecosystems, including being one of the primary prey species that contributes to the survival of large carnivores and healthy, functioning predator-prey ecosystems where large carnivores like wolves and mountain lions still exist. They also help keep the grasslands, with moderate grazing, from building up too much fuel for wildfires and their droppings contribute to increased carbon sequestration in the upper soil layer of the grasslands and meadow habitats. They also help spread native plant seeds through their feces that helps restock areas that might be damaged from trampling, etc.

In winter, the herds keep their vast network of trails and grazing areas open, which benefits other species like moose when the snow gets too deep. Since horses are grazers and moose are browsers, there is very little competition between the two. These are only some of the ecosystem services that wild horses contribute to natural ecosystems.

The BC government classifies the horses as feral, not wild, therefore there is no protection for them from legislation. Do you think that needs to change?

That’s what my book is all about. In BC the horses are managed only as a non-native feral domestic species under the Livestock Act that treats them as alien escaped animals from ranches and from the 1860 Gold Rush when many were abandoned. Because of this, they have largely been eradicated from our BC interior grasslands through a century of range wars and bounty hunts. The cows had to come first, and the cattle ranchers left no room for wild horses, including those free-ranging bands that had long been stewarded by the interior First Nations.

My research, including the genetic studies done by myself and Dr. Cothran, along with other scientific background studies, combined with Tsilhqot’in oral and early explorer history, shows that the horses were introduced into the region by the Tsilhqot’in as early as the early-mid 1600s, four centuries ago. Many scientists today are recommending that North American wild horse populations be reclassified as a returned native mammal species rather than a non-native alien species based on fossil, genetic and archeological evidence. I fully agree.

Despite this evidence, because they are still misclassified as non-native alien species under archaic laws, the Chilcotin and the few other smaller bands of BC wild horses don’t have legal protection, and some are still slaughtered indiscriminately without proper investigations and prosecutions by either provincial or federal law enforcement agencies.

Strong provincial and federal legislation that includes First Nations governance needs to be passed that recognizes our last wild horses as special heritage icons and as a returned native species that evolved in North America. One group of researchers also recommended they be listed by Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as a native species that is threatened.

What do you say to ranchers, etc., who claim the horses destroy habitat and grazing lands?

This is complex, since there is a century of hardcore scapegoating of wild horses by cattle ranchers and government range managers that’s literally imbedded in their ranch culture DNA and government laws and policies, lock, stock, and barrel. The evidence as revealed in my book is that most of the range damage, past and present, has been and is caused by cattle, not wild horses. Even with several range studies in the Chilcotin that I cite in my book that showed the horses were not a problem, but cattle are, this evidence has been ignored.

My book is the first major expose of this along with Dr. John Thistle’s range wars book Resettling the Range. I am not expecting to change their minds, although quite a number of ranchers are becoming more holistic and accepting of predators and wild horses as part of the grassland ecosystem and have improved cattle stewardship practices out there on the open range to reduce damage by cattle to riparian [wetlands] and other sensitive areas. That’s not to say the Chilcotin wild horses are not causing some minor damage, but so far I have not seen the evidence for larger damage and overpopulation during my 20 years of research. The large carnivores, severe winters and other things Mother Nature delivers seem to be keeping the Chilcotin wild population in natural balance.

A man in a mountain field.

Wayne McCrory: “I have not seen the evidence for larger damage and overpopulation during my 20 years of research.”

My book is primarily to target Canadians at large to speak up to have our elected officials pass laws that protect our last wild horses from their century-long persecution that has hidden the real range problem: cows.

I expect I’ll even have a bounty on my head out in the wild west Chilcotin from exposing the real truth and how much the cattle industry has ruled our native grasslands at the detriment of its overall ecosystem health and functioning, while blaming the horse.

What do you want readers to learn about the wild horses from your book?

I want first for people to appreciate their beauty and wild spirits as a special gift to civilizations throughout the history of man, and that we are lucky to still have the wild populations we have. I hope more people will go out to view and photograph them and see them for what they are, not stereotyped inbred horses that destroy the range as ranch culture and cowboy books would have us believe. I also want them to understand how much more of a holistic and special, protective relationship the Tsilhqot’in have with these horses and have had for at least four centuries, and that we can learn from that.

My book also takes people on a journey into the fascinating world of evolution, history, genetics, ecology and even behaviour and communication between horses that I hope will inspire people to understand why it is so important to save the best of the last as a returned native species that evolved in North America.

Order your copy of The Wild Horses of the Chilcotin, Their History and Future from Harbour Publishing, Amazon, Indigo, or ask at your favourite bookseller.