Horse cull looks bad, but there is a better solution

It seems if you want to get the public and the urban media excited about anything to do with animal welfare — just mention something bad

It seems if you want to get the public and the urban media excited about anything to do with animal welfare — just mention something bad about horses, pretty wildlife or heaven forbid, pets.

That’s what happened to the recent announcement that the Alberta government is going to allow 200 feral horses to be culled in the Sundre area. Wild horse protection groups naturally jumped in, claiming it was unnecessary and that all the captured horses were going to meet horrible deaths in slaughterhouses.

The urban media fell for that imagery and the PR war was quickly lost by the provincial government. They stuck to the line that they had scientific rationale behind them to justify the cull. But that is sketchy at best, it’s more based on the presumption that feral horses eat vegetation that is supposedly reserved for wildlife and livestock consumption.

The basis being that the feral horses are not native to the area therefore are unintended competitors.

Feral horses are nothing new to the province, they may well have been around for almost 100 years in various locations.

The two areas where they have persisted for many years are west of Sundre and up until about ten years ago on the Suffield Block near Brooks. The Suffield wild herd was completely removed due to the persistent damage horse grazing did to the rangelands. Due to the way they graze horses can damage and kill sensitive and rare plants.

The plant ecology in that area is particularly sensitive due to the semi-arid conditions. That removal program also had the tacit approval from environmental groups because of the damage the horses were doing. That program also had a difference, the federal government who organized the program made it clear the horses were to be auctioned off for adoption and not immediate slaughter.

That got the feds off the hook as they could claim that no horses were being sold for slaughter. That’s not the situation with the cull program being carried at Sundre.

Preservation groups claimed that the harsh winter would provide a natural cull as many foals would not survive till spring.

Others promoted a horse birth control approach by injecting horses with a long-lasting contraceptive. That could work if the feral horses would cooperate by lining up for their shots.

That’s unlikely to happen so huge roundups will have to be made or veterinarians will be hunting them down in helicopters and shooting at them with injection darts.

Either way, stress and injury will probably kill them by the dozen. A classic case of be careful what you wish for.

The better way is to accept the reality that the feral horse are here to stay and provide them with their own range. One of the reasons for the cull is that the horses are on grazing leases used by cattle.

Those leases are owned by local ranchers who have a legitimate case to see the horses removed. But in the same light the government could buy back the leases and use them to build a feral horse refuge.

I am sure for the right price the leaseholders would be happy to sell and leave the horses to their fate.

In addition the government could pay adjacent private land owners to preserve habitat for feral horses.

There is a precedent — the Fish and Wildlife branch pays some landowners in certain areas to preserve habitat for pheasants. If the government wanted to control numbers in the refuge why not introduce a pack of wolves.

There is also a precedent for that, in the past Alberta was involved in relocating wolf packs to Montana to control elk populations in places like Yellowstone Park.

But let’s cut to the chase — this cull is an issue only because horses are pretty and majestic animals that humans have an emotional connection to — unlike, say, rats, which the government wages a murderous war against — with nary a protest from any urban media. Besides, I expect feral horses like elk and deer are not much concerned with how they die — their natural living conditions can be so harsh (starvation, predators, injury, disease etc.) that being culled is the least of their worries.

The refuge concept is an ideal out for all parties. The only holdup are stubborn government officials who won’t admit the cull is a mistake.

Will Verboven is the editor of Alberta Farmer.

— Ahead of the Heard