The Numbers Game?


Snow Bound
Snow Bound

The capture season of our free-roaming wild horses continues with the ESRD refusing to provide the number of captured horses so far. The controversy surrounding the reasons for going ahead this winter continue. The propaganda about EIA has been now downplayed as there is lack of evidence to substantiate this concern. The research provided to us from the New England Institute of Comparative Medicine, and from veterinarians in the know, demonstrate how EIA is less contagious than other viral diseases and is considered to be innocuous.

Then we come to the numbers game. A spokeswoman for the ESRD stated in the Calgary Herald this week that the wild horse numbers are ballooning out of control. They continually state that the whole population is west of Sundre only. This is totally incorrect. They use the count from 2013 which showed there were 980 wild horses throughout the 6 equine areas. We do not dispute this. Do not forget though that this is an extremely large and diverse area and that many wild horses in this vast of a range does not appear to be “out of control.”  When the 2013 count was first released, the number was 853 and that was the number of the free-roaming wild horses portrayed to be in these areas. Later that number grew to 980. When questioned by one of our members and a person who had participated in the counts, why such a difference? They were told that in the past they never included the horses in the Brazeau Equine area, which is north of Nordegg. The other point to make is that during 2013’s count, the conditions were perfect as for each day flown, there was fresh snow on the ground and very easy to spot any horse activity. They then use the comparative numbers of 778 horses counted in 2012, to come up with their argument about the explosive horse population. Hmmmm? Anyone would question that if they normally do not include the horses in the north zone, why are they including them now? If they did not in 2012 and based on their numbers, if we were to include them, that would bring the total to 905 instead of 778. An alleged population growth of maybe 75 wild horses compared to what they are saying now of 202. This is where they get their statement that reproduction of the wild horses is 25% a year.

Now, except for their counts, no studies have ever been done here in Alberta to determine reproduction rates of the free-roaming wild horses. In the United States, however, even the BLM who manages the very large wild horse population down there, state that their wild horses reproduce at a rate of maybe 20%. The habitat for a large portion of these herds is completely different and less hostile than for our Alberta free-roaming wild horses. A study compiled over 12 years in the US by groups who closely monitor several different wild horse areas in various states, indicates that under ideal conditions, the horses reproduction rates of about 10%. Now you factor in Alberta’s harsh winters, very wet springs (high foal mortality during this time due to scours and pneumonia) and several predators (cougar and wolf in particular), one would tend to question the ESRD’s numbers again.  No matter what the reproduction rate, what is the survival rate of foals, where is the study on that?  In fact a large number of Albertans believe that the numbers have been manipulated to the advantage of the ESRD and opponents of the free-roaming wild horses to facilitate their current reasoning.

One other point in regards to the numbers is that everyone we talk to including a large wildlife photographer’s group, outfitters, and first-time visitors to the free-roaming wild horses, is how few foals and yearlings are with the herds now. An aerial count, by some Albertans, done on February 8th, 2014, in a very large area, again showed a discrepancy between what was seen and what the ESRD portrays the numbers to be.  Again this count indicated very few foals or yearlings.

We have all these numbers but a very important point we would like to bring out is that when the deputy minister was specifically asked in a meeting in 2012, how many free-roaming wild horses can the range adequately sustain, the response was “we do not know.” And the answer is still the same today. Wow!!!

Another point is that in the past a capture ratio was to be 3 studs to one mare. Then recently it was changed so that any free-roaming wild horse that entered the pen was fair game (foals and pregnant mares). The statement made was that this was the quickest way to reduce the population and was easier on the permit holders. Why were they able to segregate the animals in the past and not now?

Dr. Claudia Notzke provides that, “credible research shows that a cull of over 20 percent of the entire wild horse population in the Foothills is an extremely hard-hitting and traumatic incident for the wild horses. It is even more excessive when concentrated on smaller regional populations a large percentage of which will be simply wiped out.

Such excessive cull has a number of consequences in addition to a short term population reduction.  Drastic measures such as these actually cause an increase in the animals’ rate of reproduction, a phenomenon called “compensatory reproduction” which is coupled with a severe disruption of equine society in a desperate attempt to survive as individuals as well as a species.  In such situation much younger and immature animals start breeding, uncontrolled and unguided by more mature ones, as the leadership of the family groups as represented by lead mare and herd stallion is often disrupted by captures. Where under normal circumstances -with strict enforcement of discipline by the leadership- wild horses often only start breeding at an age of 4 or 5 years (and males even later), population loss and severe social trauma will induce breeding of 1-2 year olds, with young immature animals trying to raise young.  It also contributes to inbreeding which is normally avoided under all circumstances.  Many people don’t realize just how complex wild horse society is, and how severely it can be impacted by extreme events, not unlike human society.

Observations in the US, for example those by the International Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros (ISPMB), have clearly shown that heavy-handed interference and destruction of equine social structure results in extremely high fertility rates whereas a hands-off management strategy (“minimal feasible management”) produces much lower reproduction.  Consequently the current ESRD approach to free-roaming horse population control must be judged as entirely counter-productive.

A cyclical rise and fall of numbers around a homeostatic norm is typical for unmanaged, self-regulating populations, as exemplified by Sable Island’s wild horses, who are protected by Parks Canada as wildlife.

The wild horses in the Brittany Triangle, B.C., have for decades been subject to a hands-off management approach by the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation.  While a few are captured for domestic use, periodic helicopter and ground counts indicate that the small and isolated horse herds are either stable or declining, with a low foal to yearling survival rate. The Brittany Triangle is in the lee of the coast range with similar natural characteristics as the foothills of Alberta including the full guild of North American large predators and severe winter conditions.

Wild horse populations who are traumatized, spooked, stressed and eventually inbred will lose much of their value as a cultural, genetic, economic and environmental resource.  For those of us who view these animals as more than a resource, actions producing such state are also morally and ethically reprehensible.”

A document containing this research data was provided to the ESRD in October, 2013, and again, science was ignored.

Another point is that research being done by several individuals indicates that in the 1960’s and 1970’s wild horse populations in these same equine areas were at much higher levels than they even are now. These numbers came from the government’s own forest superintendents of these green areas, as they were called then. In fact, in 1967 for example, 318 wild horses were captured. Things like this and the indiscriminate killing and inhumane treatment of these beautiful animals led a group of individuals to forge ahead and have the 1993 horse capture regulations put into effect, to try to protect the horses better.

The only Alberta research on competition among the animals that graze on these lands was done by R. Salter from 1975 – 1977. He showed that the horses really did not compete even with cattle for the available forage. Little research exists to elucidate the actual ecological impacts and social relationships of free-roaming horses in the particular ecological, cultural and political context of the Alberta foothills, or to support management decisions concerning the horses. Remember also that horses are natural seeders and they are continually on the move while seeking out feed. No matter what proof and research that is out there to dispel a lot of the misinformation about our Alberta free-roaming wild horses, the current ESRD continues to move along with their own agenda.

We believe that there is no valid reason to continue a capture season this year considering all the different and vast amounts of seemingly distorted information being relayed to Albertans. It is obvious that the ESRD minister, Robin Campbell, is completely misled or unwilling to consider other points of view. Therefore, we would suggest just letting Premier Redford know of your concerns.”

“Keep the land, water, animals and future generations alive in your heart, mind and soul
Keep it above the rest, above the negative business –
Thank you all for keeping it above all else – see it, believe it and we will achieve it!” 

A quote from a past chief of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nations who fought to protect their wild horses and lands in BC.


9 thoughts on “The Numbers Game?

  1. Alex Bartholomew

    Re. The numbers game
    Great article, well done. For me, the big question is how do we get this vital information out to a wider audience? We are preachingt to the choir.


  2. Dale Atkin

    Good article in general. I don’t really agree with the EIA is innocuous, even if you believe that from a pathology point of view. Captive horses are routinely tested for EIA and severe restrictions placed on positive animals. Are there any surveys for prevalence of EIA in the population?
    Also can you clarify why you’re calling them wild vs. feral? My understanding is that these horses are not native to the region. They are either recent, or long time (multigenerational) escapees, descendants of domestic animal brought over with European settlers.


  3. Dr. Sabs Gillani

    Alberta is such a huge province and can 980 wild horses be a burden?? What a Bullshit, some Tory-politician friend wants to make cash with the horse meat, I presume.
    Furthermore, most of the mares are pregnant at this time of the year, how can one ever come to the idea to slaughter animals at this time?? Its a shame. our Lady Alison Redford should be better informed before she talks about the horses or even vindicates in public the killings.


  4. Karl

    I am from the Sundre area and have seen the wild horse population flucuate over the years…. and this does seem to be a high year, its all about the ranchers wanting to graze more cattle in the forestry…. plain and simple


  5. Judy Van Dusen

    Can a law suit not be filed against the powers that be ? Anything of this magnitude needs scientific data. Why are they allowed to do this all on a guessing game ?


  6. Judy Van Dusen

    Bob I pray all your articles are getting out to news media. They are very informative and people need to know the facts. Thank you for all your hard work.


  7. Cathy

    Too many unanswered questions and this has not had enough exposure as one of the meetings was being held in Calgary today at 1 pm , and I only just heard about it now !


  8. rgh7

    I hope and pray that cooler heads will prevail before these beautiful horses are allowed to be taken from their now homelands and end up on someones dinner plate.If anyone knows of a petition or is willing to start one please do and let us know so we can sign it and get it to our politicians to let them know that as animal loving and caring Albertans we do not find the kulling / killing of these wild and free majestic animals acceptable and they best rethink their attitude and mindset regarding the killing of these horses they are not their horses they belong to all Albertans and Canadians


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