Written by: Nicole Kitchener

An in-depth report on the status of Canada’s free-roaming horses.

Thumbnail for Status Update: The Wild Horses of Canada

Duane Starr Photo

Most North Americans have two main and opposing viewpoints when it comes to so-called wild horses. Some want to protect them as indigenous heritage breeds, truly wild by definition, while others believe wild horses are the epitome of feral – once domesticated animals, now living at large, an “exotic” species compromising wildlife habitat and interfering with human activities. Often a push-pull between hearts and minds, we can go from holding up the wild horses as paragons of freedom and independence, to seeing them as roving scoundrels, nuisances on the landscape that need to be eradicated or at least diminished. The arguments and the politics vary widely depending on the location of the horses.

Sable Island

Soon everyone will know the “definitive story of the Sable Island horses,” said Philip McLoughlin, a University of Saskatchewan population ecologist. He has studied these iconic animals for two decades. For 400 years, the horses have endured the punishing environment of what is essentially a 140-kilometre-long, 1.5-kilometre wide, crescent-shaped sandbar off the southwest coast of mainland Nova Scotia.

Romantic lore says they are descended from horses that swam to shore after countless area shipwrecks. Historical documentation has suggested they were introduced deliberately by the British during the expulsion of Acadians from Atlantic Canada in the mid-1700s.

However, using the latest in genome sequencing, McLoughlin’s team has discovered some fascinating details about the horses’ origin. With official results slated to be released this spring, McLoughlin can’t divulge further details, but he did share this intriguing tidbit: “It’s not what people think. The horses come out as being kind of special and related to a special branch of horses.”

No matter how they arrived, the horses have survived. The only land-based mammals on the island, they have persevered partly because their digestive system is well adapted for the marram grass that covers the windswept dunes, explained McLoughlin, whose team researches population dynamics, behaviour, functioning within the ecosystem, parasitology and maintains an extensive database. “They’re obviously able to cope with these stresses, otherwise they wouldn’t be there anymore. But how and why are they coping?”

Numbers are on the rise, ranging from 450 to a record 559 in 2013. That compares to only 200 to 400 over the previous 250 years. Right now, the count stands at just below 500, said McLoughlin.

Interestingly, the population upswing may be connected to a proliferating population of grey seals on Sable. Seal breeding fertilizes the sandy grasslands with sea nutrients. Computer modelling indicates the horses are drawn to these enriched grasses, McLoughlin explained, and that could contribute to horse health and reproduction. “We still have a lot of science to do to make this link a little bit better.”

Memorial University of Newfoundland biologist Ian Jones, a specialist in island conservation research, says the horses are abandoned farm animals – feral and invasive, creating devastating impacts on the island’s isolated ecosystem. “These large grazing mammals are, in fact, completely incompatible with all aspects of remote island ecology and conservation,” said Jones. “Remaining is a highly degraded, almost desertified ecosystem of grasses characterized by a lot of erosion and soil compaction.”

He and others want the herds removed, saying their presence contravenes federal legislation, as Sable Island was officially designated a national park reserve in 2013. With the Canada National Parks Act reading, “All practical efforts will be made to prevent the introduction of exotic plants and animals and to eliminate or contain them where they already exist.” Jones said, “It’s very clear in the act and the supporting documentation on how parks should be managed. They certainly are required by their own rules and guidelines to take action.”

However, McLoughlin said much has changed ecologically since the horses first landed. “There’s arguments that the horses don’t belong there. They’ve been introduced onto this oceanic island, which is true, but the more that I’ve gotten to know the island, the more it’s not as clear as what it seems.

“If we were to take the horses out right now, what does that mean for the island? I can tell you it’s not going back to how it was in the 1600s, it will be something different. Trying to appreciate the role of the horse, especially in the context of exotic plant species and invasive plant species on the island is one of the questions that we’re looking at right now.”

Jones believes it’s also a matter of animal welfare. “It’s a tragedy. You basically have a domestic animal that’s been abandoned on a remote island, a very harsh environment, with no cover, inadequate food and water,” he said. “You have ongoing animal abuse that’s quite deliberate to maintain the status quo. Animals are suffering and dying every year.”

McLoughlin said maintaining a “clinical detachment” is critical. “I’m coming from a wildlife perspective. I’ve studied deer, elk and moose, where, of course, they’re not given anything to help them through the winter. I don’t ride or own horses myself. It can be tough for some people. The horses live free and die free, I say.”

Saskatchewan

The best-known free-ranging equines in Saskatchewan are the wild ponies of the Bronson Provincial Forest, about 100 kilometres northeast of the Alberta-Saskatchewan border town of Lloydminster.

No one knows for sure, but it’s believed these hardy, small-statured animals, none higher than 14.3 hands, are descended from horses used by pioneers and First Nations peoples, although community elders say they weren’t spotted until the late 1960s.

Following an incident in which five of the ponies were shot dead and dumped in a pile, a private member’s bill was introduced in the provincial legislature by local rancher and MLA Tim McMillan to designate the ponies a heritage breed. In 2009, the act passed, making it illegal to molest, interfere with, hurt, capture or kill them. Violators face a fine of up to $1,000 and/or up to two months in prison. It’s the first Canadian legislation that specifically protects wild horses.

For 20 years, retired Alberta Fish and Wildlife officer Wayne Brown has unofficially tracked the ponies, which tend to range within five to 10 kilometres of his home on Bronson Lake.

Brown said the current population is now about half of the 70 or so he first counted many years ago. Split into three smaller herds, their biggest challenge is “significant wolf predation,” he said. “Colts are extremely vulnerable.”

However, Brown thinks the population is currently maintaining. He credits a wet 2017 for hampering ATV drivers from venturing onto grazing areas and “harassing” the animals. Plus, there’s been limited public access due to difficult-to-manage trails, good winter foraging conditions and permitted cattle grazing in meadows commonly used by the ponies (wolves favour calves over colts). “They do seem to persevere despite all the challenges they face.”

While the Bronson Forest ponies are safeguarded by law, other horses freely roam elsewhere in Saskatchewan. Largely considered pests, they destroy crops and property and create public safety issues. The problem is worst in the mid- to southwest quadrant of the province where many of the horses are owned by individuals in local First Nations communities who intentionally let them loose due to a lack of resources or infrastructure. Sometimes the horses escape.

Take, for example, the 40 or so roving horses living around the Resort Village of Cochin about 35 kilometres north of North Battleford that occasionally traipse through populated areas. “We’re almost immune to it now,” said village administrator Linda Sandwick. The real concern is horses on remote roads, especially in winter when grazing is scarce, and the animals gravitate to eat at the side of salt-laden highways. “It’s always a safety concern, especially at night. You’re travelling down the highway and five or six horses head up out of the ditch. It’s startling.”

She said the problem hasn’t seemed as bad in the past year or so, but the village continues to field complaints.

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Agriculture defines the horses as feral, so they fall under its Stray Animals Act. The onus is on the 296 rural municipalities (RMs) to round up horses within their own boundaries. The RM’s assume impound expenses if the owner can’t be determined. If the owners are found, they face penalties of up to $100 a day per animal. Otherwise, the horses are sold at public auction, often for slaughter, allowing the RMs recoup some, but not all, costs.

Alberta

The subject of public and celebrity attention, documentaries, countless media reports, protests and petitions, the “wildies” of the Rocky Mountain foothills of Alberta are probably the most famous of the free-ranging horses in Canada – and likely the most polarizing. Considered feral by the Alberta government, they are thought to be descended from horses turned loose after the demise of logging and mining ventures in the early 1900s.

Ranchers say the horses ruin grazing land and run cattle away from water sources. Hunters claim their presence has diminished elk and deer populations. Municipalities, private landowners and RCMP consider them a public nuisance. The government asserts the horse population is increasing as is the territory the animals cover. Conversely, lobbyists and wild horse fans say the province has historically supported prejudices and beliefs of certain stakeholders and their financial interests rather than act on valid scientific research.

The Alberta Ministry of Environment and Parks or AEP monitors the horse population in six Equine Management Zones (EMZs). March 2017 aerial surveys recorded a total 1,202 horses, up from 880 in 2014. AEP manages numbers through its Horse Capture Regulation program, acting on input from the Feral Horse Advisory Committee, a group of various stakeholders. Legislated in 1993 under the Stray Animals Act after concerns were lodged regarding inhumane roping and snaring during captures on Crown land, the program enlists government-licensed wranglers to roundup horses using food-baited corrals. Until recently, most horses were auctioned for meat.

Much has happened since 2014, when Horse Canada last reviewed the plight of Canada’s wild horses in an award-winning article called “Free Spirits.” According to Darrell Glover, founder of the advocacy group Help Alberta Wildies (HAW), this was when “the [s@#*] hit the fan.” HAW was organized at the time to fight a cull that would see 196 horses rounded up in the most horse-populated EMZ, an area west of Sundre. This came after 216 horses were removed the year before. “We became a resistance to rally against the culls. We did a bunch of protests, blockades and different things, and five of us got arrested and put in jail for a day. We actually stopped the majority of horses from being caught.”

While only 15 horses were captured, 49 were caught the following winter 2014-2015, in what Glover calls a “more secretive” operation that made it “difficult for the resistance.” Nevertheless, public pressure appeared to have made some impact. No horses went to slaughter. Some were sold to private individuals at an auction from which meat buyers were excluded. The majority went to the registered charity, the Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS) – an advocacy group organized in 2001 in response to brutal wild horse killings – for retraining and eventual adoption. That was the last cull to date.

In November 2014, the Alberta government signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with WHOAS to undertake a five-year contraception pilot program in the Sundre EMZ. “We believe it’s the most effective and humane method of managing these horses,” said WHOAS founder Bob Henderson.

Under the guidance of a veterinarian, selected mares are darted from a distance with the contraceptive vaccine ZonaStat-H (also known as PZP). Used successfully for more than 25 years in the U.S., the efficacy rate is 70 to 80 per cent, increasing to 90 per cent with a booster. The effects wear off gradually every year post vaccination. WHOAS bears all project costs – nearly $1,000 per mare, factoring in man hours and equipment.

Henderson said no mares initially vaccinated in 2014 had foaled the following season. A total 87 mares have been vaccinated so far. WHOAS will soon do a foal count. “Then we’ll carry on from there.”

Another element of the 2014 MOU is WHOAS’s adoption program. Nuisance horses or those that are trapped, abandoned or injured are taken to the organization’s permanent rescue and training facility where horses are “gentled” for eventual sale to the public. “We’re hoping we can show government our way of doing things is the best way to manage the horses. We’re working toward a long-term solution, so the Alberta wild horses can remain on the landscape forever.”

Supporters want the horses recognized and protected as a distinct breed, like the Bronson Forest ponies. But chances of that happening soon are unlikely. HAWs partnered with U.S. equine conservationist Victoria Tollman and renowned equine geneticist Dr. Gus Cothran of Texas A&M University to study DNA samples on the wildies. Results didn’t indicate a single foundation breed, but instead a strong mix of draft horses combined with other breeds, including the Siberian, Altai, which interestingly suggests descendants could go back to the arrival of native cultures, explorers and settlers. “The DNA study really wasn’t a deal breaker for anybody, let’s put it that way,” said Glover. “It really doesn’t matter because the wild horse we have here has evolved over at least the last 300 years. We still feel they’ve evolved into a breed of their own.”

Meanwhile, there’s no word on whether the province will call for a cull the winter of 2017. Glover said increasing public attention and stepped-up advocacy efforts have perhaps given the new NDP government – which won a majority over the long-standing PCs in 2016 – pause for thought. “I don’t think the government really wants any embarrassing moments at this stage with elections looming,” he said, referring to whispers voters could be at the polls earlier than the set spring 2019 period. “I think we’re going to win in favour of the horses. The government knows a lot of people like these wild horses.”

With little science to go on, no one really knows what a viable number of horses looks like. But answers may be forthcoming with the help of Sable Island horse researcher Philip McLoughlin. He is excited to enter the first stages of an independent population ecology project on the Alberta horses. He will be examining social systems, movement patterns, survival rates, the effect of predators and humans among other subjects. “We leave it up to governments to make management decisions, but we definitely provide scientific data to make recommendations.”

British Columbia

An estimated 1,000 wild horses live in the Chilcotin, a mountainous and plateau region in west-central British Columbia. Most notable wild horses are the, approximately, 200 horses inhabiting the isolated Brittany Triangle, a harsh, isolated area about 120 kilometres southwest of the city of Williams Lake.

A study officially released in early 2015 by biologist Wayne McCrory and Texas A&M’s Gus Cothran revealed the origin of the Brittany Triangle horses isn’t the Spanish breeds introduced to the Americas in the early 1500s, as originally thought. Instead, they are descended from Canadian Horse stock and to a lesser degree a rare eastern Siberian breed called the Yakut.

Funded by the conservation organization Valhalla Wilderness Society (VWS), the research was also supported by the government of the Xeni Gwet’in (one of six Tsilhqot’in bands) and the Friends of Nemaiah Valley (FONV), an organization dedicated to protecting indigenous sovereignty and the natural environment.

“When you see the wild horses of the Brittany Triangle high plateau country you realize they are completely different animals from domestic horses,” said FONV founder and president David Williams. “Usually all you get is a glimpse, and then they are gone like smoke into the forest.”

McCrory said VWS has secured funding allowing him to expand the study to the entire Chilcotin and he has already started taking DNA samples. In addition, a European genetics laboratory is running genome sequencing on the Yakut bloodlines to compare with other samples to see if they are “consistent with other semi-isolated Chilcotin wild horse clusters.”

The Chilcotin horses have been at the centre of land-use disputes since the late 1800s, beginning with government-sanctioned bounty hunts in the name of protecting ranch land from the negative impacts of horse grazing, to more recent conflicts over government logging and mining development, which in part prompted the Xen Gwet’in and the Friends of Nemaiah Valley to establish the ?Elegasi Qayus Wild Horse Preserve in 2002. Encompassing the Brittany Triangle, the preserve is intended to protect the horses and their habitat from human disturbance and to assert First Nations own land-use priorities.

In June 2014, after a decades-long battle, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled to recognize aboriginal title of about 1,800 square kilometres of Crown land and rights across the larger region to the Tsilhqot’in. The landmark decision (the first time title was declared to lands outside of a reserve in Canada) meant the Tsilhqot’in people had the right to capture, train and use wild horses for transportation and work, rights they said were infringed on by the province’s area forestry activities.

In November 2016, five wild horses were found dead near Williams Lake. It was suspected, but never proven, that the incident was an intentional shooting. (The remains were heavily scavenged by wildlife). Under section 444 of the Criminal Code of Canada, it is illegal to shoot or hunt horses, carrying up to five years imprisonment.

“I did an incident report that I sent to the RCMP, but never heard back,” said McCrory. The incident raised the ire and concern of the Tsilhqot’in. Chief Russell Myers Ross said in a statement: “There has been a pattern of indifference for the wild horses in the past. Yet, for us, it is not normal and will not be tolerated…Intentionally harming horses is an outrage and a violation of our Aboriginal rights and values.”

Then, this past summer, mother nature lobbed a blow on this same grouping when eight adults and two youngsters were found burned to death in a charred wasteland, trapped by the massive wildfires that raged through the Chilcotin forest.

Further south in B.C.’s South Okanagan, about 600 wandering equines, the majority from Penticton Indian Band lands, are causing grief on local highways and in the communities of Oliver, Penticton and Westbank. There are also concerns about the horses’ health and welfare.

“We do not consider these horses wild or feral,” said Zoe Kirk, WildSafeBC community Coordinator for the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen. “Many have brands and almost all are owned by [Penticton Indian Band] members.”

Dolly Krueger, former Penticton Indian Band councillor, worked with Kirk on a long-range management plan, that’s now stalled in draft form at the band level. Among many suggestions was fencing to enclose stallions and range-use fees. However, the primary recommendation was implementation of a ZonaStat-H contraception program similar to the one currently being piloted in Alberta. Funding is a major hurdle, admits Krueger.

“British Columbia First Nations have an issue with overpopulated horses. They are in our blood,” said Krueger. “These horses don’t have the jobs they had before. So basically, the horses have been roaming the mountains. They’re now wild.”

Clearly, the various interests, each with distinct viewpoints, objectives and prejudices put the wild horses at the centre of vastly divergent arguments. While it is practically impossible to imagine the development and the landscape of North America without horses, today they have become little more than pawns in a battle over land access, range management and conservation concerns.