A small band of wild horses lead a precarious existence in west central Saskatchewan, blithely grazing on the lush grass of Bronson Lake meadow about an hour’s drive north-east of Lloydminster, Alberta/Saskatchewan (the boundary runs right down main street). They have endured for about 50 years, fending off starvation, wolf predation, indiscriminant hunters, harassing snowmobilers and ATVers, and even tolerating inquisitive tourists. The Bronson Forest herd is, to my knowledge, the only wild horse herd that exists in Saskatchewan. The group’s population has declined over the years, from a high of about 125 in the early 1990s, to today’s level of around 35.
Not large by modern standards, nor are they the diminutive size of ponies, and many of them are very good looking animals. Despite inbreeding, most retain good proportions and I liken them to the stature of 1800s era horses used by the native Cree – a hardy, strong, independent lot, generally untrusting of man. I suspect the current herd is of mixed origin, derived from local homesteaders and travelers, with some from First Nations reserves, and a few possibly fugitives from adjacent ranch herds. Some enthusiasts suggest they are derived from the original Spanish horses of long ago, but I have an elderly friend who spent many years living in the same meadow they graze today, and she insists they were not present prior to the 1960s. This fact then begs the debatable question; are they really ‘wild,’ or just feral?
I’m aware, during the mid-1970s the initial ‘loners’ drifted together, forming into a band of sufficient size that warranted the attention of the government’s Department of Natural Resources. The bureaucrats of the day were displeased with the direct conflict of the freeloading horses on the governmentally administered cattle grazing leases. They felt the horses depleted the grass available, thus limiting the number of cattle which provided grazing lease fees to the coffers.
One enterprising cowboy, realizing the opportunity that existed in this conflict, convinced the bureaucrats to permit him to conduct a trapping program, claiming he would reduce the number of undesirable horses to the pleasure of the government. Permit in hand, this guy embarked on his endeavour, despite the acute disappointment expressed by many local residents, who felt the un-owned horses should be simply left alone. The trapping program proceeded with enthusiasm and a number of them were duly corralled, then transported to an auction sale, ostensibly heading for the “glue factory.”
Local folk-lore tales suggest that a clandestine rescue operation began to take form and spring into action. It seems a group of anonymous ranchers surreptitiously banded together, and, on the appointed day, quietly trickled into that fateful auction. Through some creative, organized bidding, the ranchers, working in concert, paid what amounted to pocket change for each of the animals. The purchased ‘items’ were then quietly loaded into horse trailers and moved to a secret location, where each was branded in an effort to discourage any future re-capturing and sale. The next phase of the operation came about in the dead of a moonless night, when the sound of rumbling horse trailers could be heard along the logging trail leading back to the Bronson Lake meadows. Trailer doors squeaked open and the horses sprang free, onto their home grasses once again. Mission accomplished! Years have passed since then, and these ‘originals’ are no longer alive, but their offspring still graze the grasses of Bronson Lake.
About three years ago, these magnificent animals suffered a second disastrous calamity when five of them were indiscriminately shot dead, and then dragged into a pile to rot. A common, legal hunting practice in Saskatchewan is utilizing lure feed piles as a hunting technique for wildlife, mostly white-tailed deer. Unwitting ‘trophy’ male deer are drawn to these sources of food, to be shot in this controlled scenario by the hunter, who is hidden in a nearby blind. It appears some of the horses probably caught the scent of the distributed feed and began foraging on the hunters’ grain piles. Frustrated with these perceived intruders, one or more unscrupulous individuals shot five of them, including a small colt. They audaciously piled the bodies together in a macabre statement proclaiming the intrusion would not be tolerated.
The discovery of this atrocity, understandably, created an intense furor amongst a sensitive public after a news story and related letters to the editor appeared in the local media featuring the incident. The progress of the subsequent investigation conducted by Conservation Officers was closely followed, but, in the end, the horses were legally identified as falling into a ‘grey area’ of not being wildlife, not being domestic and not owned. At which point, the local M.L.A, Tim McMillan stepped to the fore. Himself a rancher and avid horseman, McMillan prepared and introduced a private member’s bill to provide the now cherished animals protection from similar future incidents. This protective bill coined them as “ponies” and, in a rare move, the legislation was unanimously passed into law in the Saskatchewan Legislature in November of 2009.
These horses have become a significant tourist attraction. My wife, Marilyn, operates Lakeview Bed & Breakfast at nearby Peck Lake, and we are only about eight kilometres from the herd. We keep tabs on them from time to time, since more than a third of our clientele query us during their stays about the herd’s whereabouts and their welfare. The resulting publicity, especially from the internet website, www.wildhorsessaskatchewan.ca, has attracted a cornucopia of interested individuals ranging from professional wildlife photographers to very naive tourists that do the typically dumb touristy things, all in a quest for that special photographic experience. One couple, for example, despite our warning, stood their ground to a charging stallion while his threatening image grew in the camera’s viewfinder. They were fortunate the charge proved a bluff. The horses, unfortunately, also occasionally endure harassment from snowmobiles and ATVs; quickly fleeing from either should the riders intrude in their space. In fairness, most riders are considerate of them, and do try to avoid, or keep their distance from the herd as best they can.
The most serious danger to the herd is clearly the marauding wolf packs. There are several that patrol the Bronson Forest on a constant basis, and, on virtually every excursion to the area, I’ve observed their tracks in the soft ground indicating to me that at least a few of these efficient predators shadow the horses constantly. It seems that some of the young colts of the herd experience and survive maulings. And, the sad fact is, many of the young don’t survive these attacks. I witnessed this past spring two wolves feeding on the carcass of a young colt. In addition, many of the adult herd members sport old attack injury scars that attest to their vulnerability. Hunters and trappers do take a few of these predators from time to time, but, unfortunately for the horses, wolf numbers seem to be on the increase, and there has never been a concerted effort to control their numbers, nor should there be, since the intent is for them to exist in a “natural state.”
Last winter was tough for the horses – the snow was deeper than most years, and foraging became difficult. The herd has now dwindled to about 35 or so, and these are split into three separate groups: one of about 16-18, a second small group of less than a half dozen stay in the proximity of the main herd, ostensibly for mutual protection. Also lingering out on the fringes, there exist several young bachelor stallions that come and go on their own, but are not accepted by the main herd’s stallion. Several kilometres to the south is the third group, numbering about eight or so, which seclude themselves in the dense forest and are rarely encountered. It remains to be seen how the conditions and what circumstance may arise to affect the herd this winter.
Locating at least some of the herd isn’t difficult. The horses are usually found nearby in one of their two meadows, on either side of the road, or in the grassy logged-out clear-cut blocks along the south east side of the lake. At times, the horses do disappear, withdrawing into the surrounding bush to escape the horseflies, or the harassing wolves when they become too oppressive.
These horses’ future is always in question, but it’s a bit brighter today than it has ever been in the past, simply because of the publicized governmental legislation. Today, sourcing food and fending off predation by the wolf packs is by far the most serious challenge they face. They appear to cope well with the constant smiling and posing needed for the intruding tourists’ cameras.