We must preserve Alberta’s wild horses

I read with interest the Advocate’s reporter Paul Cowley’s recent front page article, headlined The horse war.

I read with interest the Advocate’s reporter Paul Cowley’s recent front page article, headlined The horse war.

He did an admirable job of presenting both sides of the wild horse issue. However, there were statements attributed to Clare Tannas, a principal figure in the article, and the Alberta Department of Sustainable Resources, which I would like to refute.

The contention of Mr. Tannas that the horses on public lands in Alberta are “an invasive species” is ridiculous. The horse originated in North America more than 50 million years ago and most of the horse’s evolution took place here. DNA analysis indicates that the modern horse, Equus Caballus, originated in North America. Clearly, the horse is a native species.

The Alberta Department of Sustainable Resources maintains that the free-ranging horses on public lands are not wild, but merely feral, the descendants of escaped logging and pack horses, and have only been present there since the 1920s. However, David Thompson, who explored what is now central Alberta back in 1790, noted in his journal that there were wild horses in the foothills. So, it is documented that there have been wild horses living in that area for more than two centuries.

Mr. Tannas suggests that these “feral” horses should be removed and replaced by buffalo, which he calls “a truly indigenous species”. Since the vast majority of buffalo available for such a project would be domestic buffalo raised on game farms, wouldn’t these animals have to be considered feral buffalo, which would preclude them from protection under existing wildlife laws? I’m not trying to be facetious here, but merely demonstrating the ludicrous legal situation the wild horses are in.

In fact, Mr. Tannas and government bureaucrats use the word feral in a rather careless manner, implying that feral horses don’t deserve to be in the wild. The dictionary defines feral as a domesticated animal or species which has reverted to the wild. Of course, it also defines a domesticated animal or species as having been converted from the wild to serve man. By definition then, all feral species originated in the wild. Regardless, an animal born in the wild is a wild animal.

Mr. Tannas suggests that people are turning their unwanted horses loose in the forestry. Why do that, when there are regular horse auctions in central Alberta where they can sell horses they don’t want? Nonetheless, there has obviously been some feral influence on the wild herds over the years. Domestic mares lost in the forestry by their human handlers would most likely join wild herds. However, domestic stallions or geldings would likely not fare well in the wild.

Mr. Tannas has botanical credentials, but his knowledge of biology appears to be somewhat limited. When you compare the grazing habits of cattle and horses, it is obvious that cattle are much harder on the environment. Cattle don’t have upper front teeth, so they graze by wrapping their tongue around the grass and pulling on it. If the ground is wet, cattle tend to pull the grass out by the roots, damaging the range. By comparison, horses have both upper and lower incisors and cut the grass off above the ground, allowing the grass to quickly grow back. Also, horses are not ruminants and seeds pass through their digestive system intact, so horses tend to replant their own range.

While domestic cattle tend to stay close to one water source, causing considerable damage to stream banks and water quality, and over-grazing the lowlands, horses, especially wild horses, range over a much larger area and have less negative impact on their environment. Factor in, using the government’s own figures, that there are fewer than 300 wild horses and in excess of 12,000 head of domestic cattle grazing in the forestry, and it’s obvious that the wild horses are not a significant factor in damage to the environment.

I think it’s interesting to note that supporters of the wild horses are not calling for limits on the use of public lands by the oil, cattle, and timber industries, or the many recreational users, all of which have some negative impact on the environment. They simply want the horses to be allowed to co-exist on these public lands.

For no valid reason, the Department of Sustainable Resources is trying to eradicate Alberta’s wild horses. Since the current elected provincial government supports the bureaucrats in this endeavour, one can only hope that some of the provincial opposition parties will take up the cause of preserving Alberta’s wild horses.

Albertans treasure their Western heritage and their freedom. Could there be a better symbol of this Alberta spirit than the wild horse? Why not preserve Alberta’s wild horses for future generations?

Robby McHenry