Written by: Liz Brown

Some see them as pests to be managed, while others fight to protect their free-roaming way of life. Learn more about the plight of our wild horses.

Thumbnail for Wild Horses in Canada: Pest or Precious Heritage?

Photo courtesy of David Williams

Please note that this article is from the March/April 2014 issue of Horse Canada

Horses and North American history are inextricably linked. Our continent birthed the early ancestors of the modern horse 55 million years ago in the form of a dog-sized forest browser called Hyracotherium. From there, these early members of the horse family evolved into animals more closely resembling the modern horse – animals that began spreading into Asia and Europe over the Bering land bridge. Approximately 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, horses disappeared from our continent, most likely due to climate change – global cooling – that caused mass extinctions in North America.

In present day, it’s impossible to imagine the vast expanse of the North American west without horses. Spanish explorers reintroduced herds to North America more than 500 years ago to aid in their exploration of the New World and some of these horses escaped, providing the foundation for the present day pockets of wild horses that roam the plains of the western United States and parts of Canada. Today, these herds of free-roaming horses are pawns in a battle over range land management and conservation concerns. While some believe wild horses are important to our heritage and a link to the taming of the “wild west,” others believe they’re an invasive species that left unchecked, could destroy delicate ecosystems.

Here, Horse-Canada checks in with the four provinces where horses still roam freely for an update on the state of Canada’s herds.

British Columbia

The Tsilhqot’in First Nations people of British Columbia have a special relationship with the free-roaming horses that populate the Chilcotin, a lake-pocked mountain plateau that runs west of the Fraser River and east of the Coast Mountain Range. It’s believed the Tsilhqot’in brought equines here around 1740, over ancient trade routes from southern grasslands. By the time the explorer Simon Fraser reached the junction of the Fraser and Chilcotin rivers in 1808, the Tsilhqot’in had already been using horses as riding and pack animals for more than 50 years. Many of the horses that now roam in this area are descendants of these animals.

Between the 1920s and 1940s, the BC government viewed wild horses as pests to the ranchers who were trying to range cattle in the area. Prior to 1946, the government provided a bounty of $3 per mare and $5 per stallion and bounty hunters killed around 10,000 horses during this time. Up until 1989, there were still government-sanctioned bounty hunts, according to David Williams, president of Friends of the Nemaiah Valley (FONV), a non-profit society devoted to protecting the area.

Today, estimates of the number of wild horses in the Chilcotin range from 800 to 1,200 and are based on aerial counts performed by biologists and the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources operations. About 160 of these horses are concentrated in an area in the Chilcotin known as the Brittany Triangle, and, in 2002, the Xeni Gwet’in (a band belonging to the Tsilhqot’in) First Nation government established the Elegasi Qayus Wild Horse Preserve to protect these herds. In 2007, the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled the Tsilhqot’in had land title rights in their traditional territory, which included the horses in the area as well.

“The horses are now under the protection of First Nations, so the Ministry of Forests, when it wants to deal with the horses and eliminate them or reduce the numbers, it is obligated to consult and work through the First Nations,” said Williams, who owns a log house on a lake in the Brittany Triangle and uses it as a research base. His organization previously provided funds for a wild horse ranger, who rode through the area regularly to keep an eye on the herd. This program has now ended, but the Xeni Gwet’in are now looking at ways to bring it back and make it self-sustaining.

Williams has a strong connection with the area and can trace his family’s link to the land back more than 120 years. He first encountered the wild horses in this area in 1992 when he hiked 25 kilometres into the Brittany Triangle to look at the land where his present log house stands. “They struck me as being remarkably wild and beautiful,” he said. “They behaved like wild animals, like something that was very timid and afraid of humans and would take off at the first sight of you.”

Williams is frustrated that the provincial government still doesn’t recognize the horses as wildlife. “There is institutionalized ignorance in the government, they rarely get out in the field, so I don’t put much stock in what they say,” he noted. He added, however, that his organization will be working towards legislated protection once a DNA analysis of the Brittany Triangle horses is completed.

Early results from DNA research demonstrate the horses have Canadian Horse blood and – most interestingly – Yakut horse, a rare breed from Siberia that is smaller, but otherwise similar, to Przewalski’s horse.

For now, the horses in the Elegasi Qayus Wild Horse Preserve are safe, but the rest of the horses in BC – small herds near Kamloops and the Okanagan and other areas of the Chilcotin – remain unprotected. In 2008, the BC government paid people in the Chilcotin $200 a horse to capture 25 horses, half of which were sent to slaughter.

David Borth, director of range branch in the Ministry of Forest, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, said that practices like these are meant to manage the horse population. “There are wildlife and biological concerns and economic concerns from the ranchers,” he said.

Some express concern that the horses damage riparian areas and grazing allotments meant for cattle. This is, however, debated by biologists who have studied the area. Wayne McCrory, a biologist tasked by FONV to study the Chilcotin horses, has found that the herds are an integral part of the ecosystem.

As for Borth, he said that the BC government doesn’t want to eliminate the horses, but rather, manage the population and balance all competing interests in the area. “It’s a beautiful sight to see some horses running across the range,” he said, “as long as that range is in good condition.”

Alberta

Just west of Rocky Mountain House and Sundre, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, herds of free-roaming wild horses make their home in dense brush and meadows. According to Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD), these horses, which the ESRD classify as feral, have been in the area since the early 1900s – turned loose stock from mining and logging operations. Historic evidence, however, shows Alberta tribes of First Nations owned horses since at least the 1730s. Today, there are approximately 853 horses in this area, according to the last flyover count performed by the ESRD in March 2013.

In the early to mid-part of the last decade, horse lovers near Sundre became concerned when they found several carcasses of horses that had been shot and in 2001, Bob Henderson formed the Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS) to lobby the government for better protection for the animals. Now, 12 years later, Henderson is proud of his organization’s work and recognition – he was even invited by the ESRD on the last flyover count of the herds – but says more still needs to be done to protect the animals.

In Alberta, protection for wild horses falls under the Stray Animals Act, which prohibits people from killing or removing them without a permit. Each year, the ESRD assesses the areas where the horses roam and decides if they will issue permits for horse capture. “The [Stray Animals Act] ensures protection and humane treatment of horses that are captured and establishes a balance between sustaining the herd population and protecting other resource interests in the area,” said Rob Kesseler, unit leader of Integrated Operations of Rangeland Integration at the ESRD.

But not everyone in Alberta believes that the ESRD has the best interests of the wild horses at heart. During the 2011/2012 capture season, which runs between November and March, more than 200 horses (or 20 per cent of the total horse population) were rounded up into pens by license holders. The majority of these horses were shipped to slaughterhouses.

“We raised a ruckus about that,” said Claudia Notzke, a professor at the University of Lethbridge, who has studied wild horses since 2006. “That was a removal of a major part of the herd. WHOAS really raised public awareness and applied pressure to not have a capture season. We’re actually pushing for a three-year moratorium to do some research to see what’s really going on.”

In response, the ESRD did not issue any capture permits for the 2012/2013 season and, so far, none have been issued yet for 2013/2014. At an October 2013 stakeholder meeting in Red Deer, however, the consensus was that a capture season should be held, with only WHOAS opposing the move. “I was disappointed,” admitted Henderson. “I felt like a lot of the stakeholders – those opposed to the wild horses – have a vested interest in using the land that the horses roam on for their own agendas.”

When asked if the ESRD is putting the economic interests of certain stakeholders ahead of the welfare of the horses, Kesseler bristled. “We’re talking resource impact, not economic impact. When we look at removing horses, we look at areas where we’ve noticed a decline in rangeland health. The thing that people don’t understand is that these horses actually occupy a fairly small home range. They stick to it and graze repeatedly in those areas and that will affect the overall condition of the range.”

Notzke said that the ESRD has no scientific studies to back up their claims, however. “The government of Alberta does no research whatsoever so their action and management decisions are not science-based. They’re mostly based on perceptions and prejudice,” she said.

Kesseler insists that the ESRD has based their management decisions on research, noting that in 2008, they hired a range consultant to evaluate the impact of free-ranging horses on resources. The findings of this document are ‘internal’ though and cannot be shared with the public. Kesseler also points to a 2012 master’s thesis completed through the University of Alberta, by Tisa Lee Girard, titled Habitat Selection by Feral Horses in the Alberta Foothills.

Girard completed her research in the McLean Creek Recreational area near Bragg Creek, where for every horse in the area, there are about 12 head of cattle – about 131 wild horses make their home here and ranchers graze 1,600 cattle on the range from June 15 to October 15. While Girard notes the area is at risk for range degradation because there is significant overlap in the grazing areas of cattle and the horses, she also says that “further studies of the impacts of cattle and horse grazing continuously on small preferred habitat areas within the region would be beneficial to determine if there are detrimental impacts.”

“The ESRD is not interested in furthering independent research into the behaviour, ecology and movements of wild horse populations,” said Notzke, noting that prior to these recent studies, the last peer-reviewed and published research on wild horses in Alberta dated back to the 1970s.

Pressure from WHOAS and the public seems to be having some impact though, as, in 2013, the ESRD initiated a review of their horse management strategy and created the Feral Horse Advisory Committee. “We’re asking stakeholders to help provide some recommendations to the government in how they would like to see these feral horse populations managed,” said Kesseler.

“There seems to be this impression that the horses in Alberta are not protected. They are protected. We’ve taken a different approach, a regulatory approach, where that includes being able to manage the horse numbers,” he added.

Saskatchewan

There’s a lot of local lore surrounding the wild ponies of Bronson Forest – a group of free-roaming horses (all under 14.3 hands high) that reside in the meadows near Bronson Lake in the northwest part of Saskatchewan.

“I’ve talked to a lot of the older people who lived here in the early days – people in their 80s and 90s – and they don’t recall the horses being in the area when they were younger,” said Wayne Brown, a retired conservation officer and a local area historian. Brown and his wife Marilyn run the Lakeview Bed & Breakfast in Peck Lake, which is located an eight-kilometre drive from where the ponies live.

“One lady in particular spent several years living where the ponies graze now and she says she doesn’t know when they came, but she’s positive they weren’t there in the 1960s,” he added. The general consensus, though, seems to be that the ponies are descendants of escaped stock from local outfitters. Brown first came into contact with the ponies in the early 1980s, but there’s a local tale that goes back to the mid-1970s of an entrepreneurial soul who came into the area, captured the herd and trucked them to an auction, hoping to make a bit of money. When the local ranchers, who all enjoyed the presence of the herds, got wind of what happened, they banded together and headed to the auction to buy them back. “So, they bought all these ponies back and then in the middle of the night, turned them loose again,” said Brown, chuckling.

In the mid-1980s to early 1990s, Brown said the herds were at their population peak – reaching numbers as high as 70 head. Since that time, however, the population has declined. In 2008, they ponies were dealt another blow when someone shot five of them and left their carcasses in a pile. “It was a deliberate message from someone who didn’t like them being there,” said Brown.

In response, a local rancher contacted the Lloydminster MLA, Tim McMillan, who is the provincial government representative for the area, to complain about the shootings. “The constituent brought in pictures of the dead horses that were disturbing,” said McMillan.

McMillan, a rancher himself, inquired with the Ministry of the Environment about what legislation there was to protect the ponies. “The Ministry understood the issue and wanted to help, but their legislation only spoke of wildlife. These horses had historically come from domesticated animals,” he said.

So McMillan introduced a private member’s bill into the legislature and in December 2009, The Protection of the Wild Ponies of the Bronson Forest Act became law. Now, those who kill or otherwise interfere with the ponies face a fine of up to $1,000 or imprisonment for up to two months.

The legislation has been enough to deter whoever was responsible for the original shootings from killing any more of the ponies, but they are still at risk of disappearing. As of December 2013, Brown reports there are now only two herds – one with seven-head and the other with nine. And he isn’t optimistic they’ll fare well through the winter. “The wolves prey on them pretty hard,” he said. “It’s a natural process and sad to see, but it’s part of life in the forest. They’re having a pretty tough time of it.”

There is nothing in the legislation to promote conservation of the herd and McMillan said there are no plans to interfere with the natural process. “The intent of our act was to protect them from human interference. I think the beauty and freedom these horses represent also represents that they are meant to be fending for themselves,” he added.

Sable Island

The wild horses of Sable Island may well owe their present existence to scores of feisty Canadian school children who, in 1959, wrote Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, demanding protection for the herds that resided on this tiny strip of land in the Atlantic Ocean, 300 kilometres east and south of Halifax.

Their letter writing campaign was part of a larger public outcry in reaction to a report that the horses were to be removed from the island and sent for slaughter. In response, Diefenbaker passed a law protecting the Sable Island horses in 1960. Since then, the herds have remained largely undisturbed on this 49-kilometre strip of land, which is only 1.5 kilometres across at its widest point and has a year-round human population of just five individuals.

Legend has it the present herd’s ancestors swam to the island from North Atlantic shipwrecks. The reality is a little tamer, however. The first recorded horses were brought to the island in 1737 by Boston clergyman Rev. Andrew Le Mercier, who was attempting to colonize the island, and subsequent merchants brought other horses to the island from Acadia.

Aside from grey seals that come to the island in the winter to breed and whelp pups, the horses are the only mammals here. There are also no trees on the island – despite attempts by the federal government to plant over 80,000 trees there in 1901. Currently, there are more than 500 horses on island, the largest the population has been in its history, said researcher Philip McLoughlin, a population ecologist at the University of Saskatchewan, who is conducting a 30-year study of the horses that began in 2007.

McLoughlin, who has dedicated the rest of his career to studying the wild horses, is excited by what researchers can learn about how wildlife populations function from the Sable Island horses. “You can use this population to understand some fundamental questions about ecology and evolution,” he said.

“This is probably the longest running feral contingent of horses that we know of that hasn’t had intensive human management. So, one neat question we can look at is what has being feral over 50-60 generations done to artificial selection? Does natural selection reverse the effects of artificial selection (breeding by humans)?”

McLoughlin said that the biggest threats facing the wild horses on Sable Island are population depression (issues caused by inbreeding in such a small population size), climate change and issues arising from climate change. For instance, he speculated, “What happens, say, in 100 years, if a midge colonizes the island because of climate change and the horses have some sort of reaction to midge bites?”

Another risk would be the introduction of a disease that the horses are unable to cope with because they’ve lived in isolation from other populations for so long.

For right now however, the Sable Island population appears to be thriving and the island has received further protection in the last year. Since December 1, 2013, it has been officially recognized as a national park, joining locations like Banff as places of importance and guaranteed protection.

McLoughlin is confident that the potential for increased tourism will not be a threat to the island, however. “As much as people want to visit Sable, you have to be really driven and have lots of financial backing,” he noted. Trips can be arranged via air charter or private vessels, which must anchor off-shore. Prospective visitors must obtain permission from Parks Canada. The visiting season runs from June to the end of October.