An innovative program to vaccinate West Country wild horses against pregnancy to control populations is off and running.
About half of the target 19 mares have been vaccinated since early January by a team comprised of a veterinarian, a University of Calgary researcher and volunteers from the Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS).
Bob Henderson, president of the society, said a candidate herd for the program was identified through a database created by volunteers, who have counted, logged and photographed the horses that roam the wilds about 60 km west of Sundre north of the Red Deer River.
Horses are given a birth control vaccine by using a dart gun. It hasn’t been easy, through tracking the herd and isolating candidates for the program.
Unlike last winter, when heavy snowfalls kept horses from wandering too far, lighter snow cover this year has led to more roaming.
“This year they’re moving quite a bit more so it’s making it a little bit more difficult for us to precisely locate them,” Henderson said.
“We knew this year it would be a learning experience for us,” he said.
The team tracks them with four-wheel drive vehicles and then on foot. They need to get within 50 metres to use the dart gun.
A booster shot will be given in a year. Vaccinated mares are identified by their markings, which are carefully catalogued. Both shots will prevent mares from getting pregnant for three years.
After years of lobbying the government to preserve the wild horses and do away with an annual capture program, the society announced last November it had entered into a five-year wild horse management agreement with Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.
A large area was set aside west of Sundre for the society to work with the horses, which are considered feral, not truly wild, by the government. About 330 horses have been counted and documented in the area.
In all, about 880 horses roamed the West Country at last count.
Besides the vaccination program, the province also approved the society’s horse adoption program.
Injured or abandoned foals and adults that have strayed onto roads or private land are targeted.
A small herd of seven horses that had settled on an area leased for cattle has been rounded up and moved to about 20 acres donated by Calgary construction company owner Art Kohanik and his wife Helen. Corrals have also been built and in the spring it is hoped school education tours can be arranged.
“We’re just going to keep them safe and allow them to live out their lives in peace,” Henderson said.
Two of the mares are pregnant and adoptive homes have been found for their foals when they arrive.