Wild horses show value with survival

Wild horses, the descendants of escaped or liberated domestic horses, still roam certain parts of Alberta.

WILL VERBOVEN – Ahead of the Heard

Some consider them an iconic symbol of the romantic past of the old west, others consider them a nuisance, and some more nefarious folks see them as a source for a quick dollar.

Wild horses, the descendants of escaped or liberated domestic horses, still roam certain parts of Alberta. But their survival both past and present has a checkered history.

Over the years, they have tended to become the victims of vested interests, and government stoicism about what to do with these animals.

From a government perspective, they are deemed to be neither wild nor domestic, with no one really wanting to claim responsibility for them.

The coyote has a similar confused designation — it’s a wild animal that has been deemed a nuisance species therefore it falls under Alberta Agriculture control legislation — sort of like a noxious weed. Wolves, which many in the livestock business also consider a nuisance species, are the responsibility of the Fish and Wildlife department. Those folks tend to want to conserve those critters rather than control them — but that’s another story.

At one time, there was a fairly large herd of wild horses on the British Block at Suffield. From a grazing and environmental perspective, that land is quite sensitive and fragile, and the resident wild-horse herd had a very negative impact on that ecosystem.

Horses can be very hard on native vegetation due to their grazing practices. It was decided to remove that herd to protect the sensitive native rangeland. That was done and the horses were dispersed by auction.

I understand that the removal of the horses off the block resulted in the resident elk herd expanding, so the benefit to the native range might not actually have been realized, but so goes the unintended consequences of government decisions. It’s all history now.

There continues to exist a wild-horse herd west of Sundre in the foothills that has shown to be remarkably resilient, considering the adverse living conditions in the area. There are a number of free-roaming bands whose numbers fluctuate, so an actual figure is hard to determine.

It seems, however, every winter, dead wild horses are found that show signs of a suspicious demise. Gunshot wounds are sometimes evident, but not always. The herds in that area seem to compete with cattle and wildlife grazing, both of which involve ranching and outfitting businesses that have a commercial interest in the continuation of that activity.

Wild horses are not always looked upon favourably in that context.

Having said all that, it causes one to ponder that if wild horses are seen by some as iconic and romantic images of freedom and the west — why not consider some ways to exploit that image. There must be some way to showcase these animals for tourist purposes. After all, city folks will travel thousands of miles just to get a hoped-for glimpse of bear, moose or elk — why not a glimpse of a herd of free roaming wild horses.

We spend millions of taxpayer dollars trying to preserve, conserve and increase wildlife habitat with the ulterior motive of using both the wildlife and habitat as a source for tourism and hunting. So why not find a way to do the same for majestic and noble herds of wild horses.

I have no doubt that ranchers and landowners in the area where wild horses still roam — if given favourable incentives — would find ways to manage the movement of the wild-horse herds so that they could be more accessible to curious city folks and tourists. Outfitters could offer tours that would involve closeup viewing of the elusive animals in their natural habitat.

With some imagination, there must be many ways to both protect the wild herd and to commercialize them without sending them all to a horse processing plant.

What we don’t want to see is the American experience, where the government under pressure from green and animal rights groups, has taken complete responsibility for the survival of their wild horse herds.

That has seen herds expand by the thousands through hay-feeding programs and the inability to cull those herds.

Surely, there must be a free-enterprise approach that we can use in Alberta to find a better way.

Will Verboven is the editor of Alberta Farmer.