Efforts to control Alberta’s wild horse population through adoption and contraception are working, says the group behind the programs.
Bob Henderson, of the Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS), hopes that won’t be lost on the province, which has yet to commit to abandoning what was becoming an almost annual roundup of dozens of horses.
Henderson said adoption has proven successful with 34 horses adopted out in the last year, and more than 80 in the last few years.
“Things are going pretty good for us,” he said. “We’ve adopted everything we’ve had come through our facility.”
There was some concern the economy and high hay costs could pose a problem, but that hasn’t materialized.
“There are people willing to step up to the plate and take on these wildies and turn them into their own horses. It’s good. We haven’t had any issues yet.”
A pilot project to target fertile mares with contraception darts is also on track.
“We had a good winter. We’re running pretty much on target with what our reproduction biologists have told us we have to hit.”
Biologists recommended targeting about 80 mares with a contraception that prevents pregnancy for three years. More than 70 have been darted so far in the wilderness west of Sundre. A few tweaks to the dart gun, improving the barrel for better range and accuracy, has paid off, he said. A small tracked vehicle was also purchased by the society to better get into the back country. The contraception program is on hold for foaling season, but they will go out again in the summer to reach a few more. It also allows the group to track and document the herds.
It is hoped these successes will finally convince the province to abandon the roundup, which was not done this year so a long-term feral horse strategy could be worked out, said Alberta Environment and Parks.
The province considers the horses feral — descended from abandoned logging and ranch animals — rather than truly wild. About 800 to 900 are believed to be roaming free.
Those opposing the spring roundup see the horses as distinct and wild. The roundup amounted to a cull because many horses in the past ended up at slaughterhouses, they say.
Henderson said those coming to the horses’ defence insist the province back up its view that there are too many horses with solid scientific evidence and proof they are damaging grasslands.
“We’re still encouraging them that there’s a better way to do it, to get rid of that old way of thinking that culling is the only way to manage the herds out there.”
If there are problem areas, those can be dealt with instead of a random cull, he said.
It’s a position shared by the organization Zoocheck, which came out against the cull earlier this year.
In February, Zoocheck said a recent study found no scientific evidence the horses are over-populating the landscape and causing ecological damage.
The 1 1/2-year study of available data, as well as visits to the horses’ habitat and a technical review by a biologist of the province’s free-roaming horse management program showed no evidence rangelands were being damaged by hungry horses.
Damage to rangelands, parts of which are leased to cattle producers, has been a cornerstone of their argument that the horse population has grown too large and is hurting the environment.
The 90-page report authored by B.C.-based conservation biologist Wayne McCrory says the government’s existing horse management policies and strategies “lack scientific rigor and objectivity” and the province’s staff have made factual claims contradicted by peer-reviewed scientific journals.