Arrests and sit-in protests peppered the feral horse capture season this year as the Alberta Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resources Development (ESRD) issued three capture permits in January, allowing for the removal of up to 196 feral horses from an area west of Sundre.
“We were disappointed that the decision to have a capture season was made for this winter,” says Bob Henderson, founder of the Wild Horse of Alberta Society (WHOAS). “We had expressed our concerns to the ESRD that there was a very high foal mortality rate in 2012 and 2013, up to 70 per cent not surviving for various reasons. Then with this winter hitting wild horse country the way it did, we felt that nature was doing a good job of managing wild horse numbers.”
Shannon Mann, founder of backyardactivist.com, in coordination with the group Help Alberta Wildies, organized a two-week protest from February 16 to February 28 near one of the capture pens to observe the removal of the horses.
The group was interfering with the lawful removal of the horses as they spread hay to lure the animals away from the capture pens, according to Jason Bradley, a rancher who was issued a horse capture permit. Police arrested five of the protestors and charged them with mischief, alleging they ignored orders to stay away from the capture site.
Bradley says that people were tampering with the capture pens, placing hay close to the capture pens to lure horses away, and that some of the protestors admitted to him that they were physically chasing horses away from the pens.
“Everything we did was fully within the law,” says Mann, who herself was not arrested and who denies that anyone in her group tampered with the pens.
“Nobody did anything to directly affect the capture. It’s all perception. They told us to move because camping within the vicinity would keep the horses away from the capture pen.”
Both Henderson and Mann were particularly upset that three captured mares were sent for slaughter when people from their groups offered to buy them from the permit holders. “It seemed to be done out of spite,” says Mann.
Bradley, a professional grazier, argues the horse capture is necessary to maintain the health of his range. “It’s part of a management strategy and a need to effect healthy range management practices,” he says.
He adds that the ESRD have documented damage to the health of his range due to wild horse grazing. However, Mann argues the capture is motivated by economic interests more than range health interests.
“They (the ranchers) feel the horses are competing for grasslands with their cattle,” she says. “If this was about range health the cattle shouldn’t be there either. If you want to call a spade a spade, this is about money and the cattle ranchers having a lot of power.”
Mann also objects to Bradley being on the feral horse advisory committee, the group that decides if a capture season is warranted based on population and range health. “It’s a conflict of interest,” she says. “He’s on the committee that decides if the wild horses are a problem and should be culled. Then he gets the permit to catch them and profits off them.”
Bradley keeps some of the horses he captures, sells some and sends others for slaughter. He firmly maintains that the capture is done for ecological reasons.
“I admire their conviction and respect their opinion,” he says of the protestors. “But what I don’t accept is illegal activities. What’s important to me is for those people to give themselves a chance to look at the bigger picture and not just approach this with emotion.”
According to the ESRD, only 15 horses were captured during the season, which ended March 1. Carrie Sancartier, a public affairs officer with Alberta ESRD, says there were fewer applicants for capture licenses this year than in years past, although she couldn’t speculate on the reason for this.
Mann believes it might be due to the protests and increased public awareness. “There’s a lot more awareness now and a lot of pressure on the government, which is good,” she says.
In the coming weeks, the ESRD will conduct their yearly feral horse count. Last year’s count documented 853 horses in the area. “The ESRD will continue to work with the feral horse committee on longer term feral horse management strategies,” says Sancartier.
One population control strategy the Wild Horses of Alberta Society is proposing is a contraception program. The wild horse advisory committee will again meet on March 11 where Dr. Judith Samson-French has been invited to present her contraceptive initiative.