In Australia’s extensive outback, the wild horse population was so out of control that the government resorted last fall to shooting thousands from helicopters.
Around the same time, ecologists there reported seeing starving horses turn cannibal to survive.
With an estimated wild — or feral — horse population of between 400,000 and one million, Australia faces an exponentially bigger issue than Alberta, where somewhere around 1,000 horses are believed to roam the foothills.
But even that number is too high to be sustained, say organizations that are encouraging the province to continue its work in getting a firm handle on how many wild horses can be supported without damaging wilderness areas and natural pastures.
Ian Stuart, an Alberta Fish and Game Association hunting chairman, said nobody wants to repeat Australia’s problems, even if it is on a much smaller scale.
“We really don’t want to let it get to that point,” said the semi-retired farmer and horse owner who lives west of Innisfail.
Dealing with wild horses is a sensitive — and almost always controversial — issue.
The Australian aerial cull of the horses they call “brumbies” is unpopular.
Likewise, U.S. efforts to control the wild horse population have been criticized.
As recently as last week, a proposed 300-horse roundup in Nevada — which has an estimated 50,000 wild horses — was temporarily blocked by a judge on the grounds that scientific data backing the project was out of date.
Alberta announced earlier this month that it would allow up to 60 feral horses to be rounded up from an area known as the Ghost River Equine Zone. They will be first offered to the Wild Horses Society of Alberta (WHOAS) as candidates for adoption before going to auction.
A five-year agreement has also been signed with WHOAS to try to control populations by shooting contraceptive-loaded darts into 19 mares, preventing them from getting pregnant for three years.
Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development spokesman Duncan MacDonnell said 21 horses have been captured so far.
MacDonnell said the capture is targeting young stallions, which are considered the most adoptable. Those captured will be identified to build a database and to ensure they are not simply let free again.
Money raised from the Feb. 28 auction at Innisfail Auction Mart goes back to the government to pay for the horse program.
Another horse count is expected to take place this spring.
The horses are considered feral, rather than truly wild, because they are largely the descendants of logging and guiding/outfitting animals let loose when they were no longer needed in the early 1900s, says the province.
The Fish and Game Association believes the government’s current efforts are a “step in the right direction” but likely won’t be enough to control the population as much as is needed.
“We’re a conservation organization. So wildlife comes first and feral horses are not wildlife.
“They do displace wildlife, that’s a fact. The numbers have to be controlled. They are an invasive species.”
How many there should be remains an open question.
“It’s hard to put a firm number on it. But in the case of invasive species, a whole lot less is better than a whole lot more.”
Stuart says the government has been working to deal with the problem.
“They’re trying very hard and I would have to give them credit for trying to deal with this on a factual basis, and approach it from a scientific as opposed to an emotional perspective.”
He fully supports the contraception experiment but doubts it will come close to reducing the numbers enough to stabilize the population.
WHOAS president Bob Henderson shares the view that the horse population has to be managed but doesn’t agree with the drastic cuts in numbers some groups see as necessary.
“We believe the numbers are fairly close” to a sustainable population, he said.
Some of those lobbying for a horse cull are using arguments that have no scientific basis, he says.
Horses have been blamed for eating the food that deer and elk need, reducing their populations. But Henderson said the thousands of cattle grazing in the West Country have a far bigger impact.
Meanwhile, WHOAS is doing what it can to manage numbers. Henderson was at the auction mart on Thursday picking out another eight younger horses to join five already “adopted” out of the latest roundup. They will be moved to donated land in the Sundre area.
Rocky Mountain Forest Range Management Association vice-president Ian Mason sees progress in solving the problem with the government’s latest initiatives.
“It’s not perfect, but it’s a start,” the cattle rancher said.
“It’s going to be a long-term project to get the numbers under control and get a suitable management solution.”
Mason, who is one of the original members of the province’s Feral Horse Advisory Committee, believes those on both sides of the issue need to work together.
“We have to try to include everybody in the decision-making process so it’s a group solution that everybody can agree with.”
He understands that there are many admirers of the horses who don’t want to see anything happen to them.
But it comes down to an ecological problem, he said.
“At the end of the day, the environment can only handle so many animals on its landscapes. There is a feed load there that is environmentally sustainable and everything else on that landscape is managed in its numbers.”
Whether it’s human activity, forestry, oil and gas companies, wildlife or cattle grazing, there are limits put on how much is allowed.
“The only thing that’s left to run feral is the horses, which puts everything in an unbalanced state of being.”
Mother Nature’s natural population control mechanisms are not enough to keep the population sustainable, mostly because people continue to let their horses loose in the West Country every year, further boosting numbers.
“There’s a reason the population west of Sundre has exploded in such numbers.”
Mason said they know the horses are there to stay. Range association members would just like to ensure the population is managed properly.
What the magical number is for an ecologically sustainable population has yet to be determined. Once that is known, a system of removing horses — possibly in the hundreds — will have to be determined.
When the population is at a manageable level, measures such as contraception darting may have more success in controlling populations.