A national group wants the Alberta government to halt the capture of wild horses until it recounts the population.

The provincial government announced last week it's giving out licences to capture 196 of the feral animals, which came as a surprise to the Canadian Wild Horse Foundation.

"Myself and many many others have been calling ESRD and the Minister of Environment throughout the fall and winter to find out the status of the cull because there wasn't one announced," said foundation co-founder Adrian Calvert.

"And we were told up to 48 hours prior to the announcement that there was no decision made, so it came as a shock to us.

Each year the province surveys the population and decides whether to issue capture licences. The wild horses can be kept for personal use or sold for slaughter.

"It was determined that this year that approximately 20 per cent of the number we were seeing needed to be removed from the land by licence holders," said Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ERSD) spokesperson Nikki Booth.

The Alberta government says it has an advisory panel, which consists of veterinarians and a horse industry association, to help decide each year whether feral horses should be captured.

"They actually reviewed the numbers and they were the ones that recommended to us that a horse capture needed to be held this year," said Booth. "So we do hear from a variety of stakeholders on the matter."

Population estimated at 980 wild horses

The province estimates there are 980 wild horses near Sundre based on an aerial survey done before the June floods and this year's harsh winter. That number is up from 778 the year before.

Calvert says that number may be much lower and so the foundation would like to see a recount.

The group also sent a petition to the federal government asking the horses be declared heritage animals to protect them.

Calvert says the government turned down the request, but the organization plans to resubmit its request.

Provincial biologists have said in the past they don't consider the feral animals true wildlife because they are descendants of domestic horses used in logging and mining operations in the early 1900s.

"We should be looking deeper into these animals before we simply state that they're 'barnyard escapees,' which they clearly are not," said Calvert. "These are animals that have been out there for hundreds of years. They are wildlife. They are native wildlife and they need to be protected as such." 

The province says the herds need to be managed because they are competing with native animals and livestock. 

"They share native grass — so food source with other animals on the land, including wildlife and livestock, that graze in the area," said Booth. "So you have to look at what is a sustainable number for all species." 

It has also been said the horses are a potential traffic hazard and have a significant impact on the ecological health of an area.​