Although winter has been extremely kind to our wild horses, we are all hoping for an early spring. March can be tough on the horses as the snow gets crusty and the food sources become a bit harder for them to find. This little yearling has done well but still relies on its mom’s milk to keep it growing and thriving.
This stallion did not like us being too close to his band who were pawing through the snow just beside us. He is seemingly floating above the roadway through the new fallen snow. Once he let us know he was not happy, he joined his herd and we left him in peace. The tranquility of winter scenes with the wild horses is always inspiring.
In certain parts of the horse range the hillsides are exposed allowing the herds to move about a little easier. These two take advantage of the winter sunshine and they have very good body condition for early March.
Here you can tell that the sunshine along with the chinook winds have opened up the terrain. The wild horses take full advantage of these locations.
This youngster may need a shave! We just thought he was so cute with his long facial hair.
March is also the time of year when the bachelor studs start honing their fighting skills. They will need to use these techniques that they learn in these mock battles when it comes time for them to challenge a band stallion for his harem. If you are looking for action photos, this is definitely the time of year you can find them. When we did our aerial count with HAWS we found this same bachelor group and they were still at it!
Can you find the two grey coloured mares? These bands were taking full advantage of the diminished snow on this high hillside.
WHOAS along with HAWS and financially supported by Zoocheck, decided to work together to conduct our own aerial census of the Sundre Equine Zone. This is a controversial area and although the AEP will be conducting their own government survey, in our own minds we just wanted to ensure that the number of horses in this zone are reflected properly by both surveys.
In our ground travels throughout the winter we were finding a lot fewer horses in their typical wintering areas. Why was this? So one of the other factors that we wanted to determine was where had the horses dispersed to and maybe determine why. This type of information is crucial in our ongoing meetings with the government in determining a long term management strategy for the wild horses. Where they are inhabiting is important in what effect they may be having on forage availability for the cattle leases and other wildlife.
What we found out was that a large number of the horses have moved into more remote areas away from roadways and people. In fact in our flights we were seeing horses in areas a long ways back in the forest where we would never have been able to see them before. Another factor we found interesting is that when we approached horses that were used to human interaction, they would mostly stand and watch us fly by as we counted their numbers. However those horses that were in the more remote areas were truly wild! When we approached with the helicopter they would immediately start to run off. So in these instances it was a quick tally and then leave them be.
There were 3 bands of horses in this meadow, and as you can see with the new snow and the bright sunshine they were easy to spot from a distance. We would them move in circling above to do a count on the total number of horses and also determine in each band how many subadults (1-2 years old) were with them.
During the 2 days we conducted our survey we flew in tight grid patterns in a south to north direction, half a mile apart, along the same grids used by the AEP in their 2019 count. We adhered precisely to these patterns to ensure that our count numbers were accurate. We used GPS coordinates to map the exact locations of every horse that we spotted, band or single.
This photograph gives you an idea of the grid pattern that we flew on day one and the marked waypoint locations.
One of the most frustrating situations that is occurring in the Sundre Equine Zone is the ongoing criminal theft of a very large number of trail cameras set up by HAWS in the Williams Creek area. HAWS was using data collected from the cameras in order to identify horses and also track their movements. Information such as this is again important in determining what sort of action may be necessary in the AEPs long term population management strategy for our beautiful Alberta wild horses. In total HAWS has lost 83 cameras in a short period of time. Along with the cameras are the SD cards containing all the data that they were counting on to help them in their research. However, not only has HAWS lost cameras out there, the University of Saskatchewan over the 3 years they had been conducting their research have had 39 cameras stolen.
On wonders why these criminals would be doing this. But one of the things that come to our minds is that they do not want the truth about what little impact the horses are having on the environment. They would prefer the biased and misinformation they put forth about the horses be what the government uses. Who would want this?
One of the arguments used against the horses is that they are destroying the environment. Take a look at the photograph above which is above the Red Deer River Ranger station. This damage was done just this past fall by atv users. Now I have been using this back country since the early 1960s and this hillside has always been untouched and undamaged until now. Cattle, horses, deer, elk and bears have used this same hillside without causing any damage whatsoever for millennium. The grass was always there for the animals no matter what species. Come spring when the rains come, these tracks will be washed out and a permanent scar will remain. These tracks will likely encourage those who have no respect for the environment to continue to degrade this lovely hillside. What is the government going to do about this as I did report it to them?
In the past, opponents of the horses, including the government, have claimed the wild horses are overrunning the countryside and their population is ballooning out of control. All this with no sound scientific basis. Others claim that the horses are the reason that there are no wildlife left in the foothills. Again with no proof. It is so much easier for many to blame the horses and the wolves for what is wrong in these ecosystems. This is so far from the truth.
We were just sent an article from the “Family Herald”, dated August, 1966. The article starts off with people being concerned about recent attempts to round up bands of wild horses. This used to be called the Rocky Mountain Forest Reserve where wild horse wranglers who had seen the horses estimated there to be two-three thousand head. The Alberta Forest Service (currently AEP), used the same arguments then that the horses are taking the grass away from the cattle and the wildlife. Some things never change! The article briefly outlines efforts to remove the horses and their failed attempts to do so. Quite an informative article!
In the 60s, even the Alberta Cattlemen’s Association stated there were three thousand horses roaming at will throughout the foothills. Newspaper articles state that in 1991 the Alberta Fish and Wildlife department indicated there were 300 wild horses in Kananaskis country. In the AEP aerial count in 2021 found only 81 horses here, so the numbers are not ballooning out of control in fact they are diminishing. Our point in all of this is that the number of horses now roaming in all the equine zones are not at a level that requires any intervention. In fact even in the 2021 census the total number of horses in all the equine zones has gone down. Why is this? The research from the universities and from HAWS could have helped determine why the numbers are going down.
Some do not want to know this and even the AEP in the past have refused to acknowledge even their own past records on the number of wild horses living in the equine zones. This has enabled them to blame the horses for all that is wrong today.
Those that claim that there are no elk to hunt any more because of the horses, fail to realize that when the horses were as numerous as they were, elk were in abundance in these areas. As a matter of fact back in 1977 the Alberta bull elk record was taken in the Panther River area. I myself back in the 60s and 70s, on the same hillside mentioned, have seen up to 500 head of elk grazing in midwinter. Further back in the YaHa Tinda it was not unusual in the winter months to see vast numbers of elk. Where did they go? It is definitely not because of the horses that the wildlife numbers have diminished so much.
WHOAS is grateful that the current FHAC committee formed by the AEP has recognized the importance of the Indigenous knowledge and history in providing answers to all these questions and help determine a fair and sound management plan. This knowledge goes way back well before the arrival of white settlers onto their land.
In our opinion it is not the wild horses that should be of concern in determining the environmental action to protect the ecosystems and landscape of our Alberta foothills that is necesssary. Factors such as global warming, drought, deforestation, industrial exploration and increased recreational use do play a significant role.
WHOAS continues to be involved with the government in coming up with a fair and humane management strategy to protect the wild horses. One of the biggest obstacles we are coming up against is their refusal to redesignate the horses as a distinct species and removal from the Stray Animal Act where they are deemed a ‘feral’ animal. This is completely wrong, they are not stray animals. We will do whatever is necessary to assist in coming up with a viable solution to allow the horses to remain forever free.