Five people who say they were documenting the wild horse roundup in central Alberta have been arrested and charged with mischief.

The province of Alberta issued licences to capture up to 196 animals, which it says pose a threat to native animals and their food supplies. Licensees can keep the horses for personal use or sell them for slaughter.

Shannon Mann, who is opposed to the roundup, joined a small group of people camping near a roundup site in the Sundre, Alta., area for the past week.

wild horses

Five opponents of the wild horse roundup in Alberta were arrested near Sundre. They said they were observing the operation but RCMP have charged them with mischief. (Wild Horses of Alberta Society)

They were on Crown land near a capture pen — but were not interfering — when RCMP officers arrived and told them they had to leave, she said.

“We asked them where should we move to and we got three separate answers from three different officers, so they didn't clearly really have a boundary,” she said.

“One said we couldn't be within the line of sight of the capture pen, one said we should be on the other side of the trees. And then one said we should be a kilometre away.”

'Nobody was tampering'

Mann said they were in the process of moving when police handcuffed two men and three women and took them to the RCMP station in Sundre, which is about 120 kilometres northwest of Calgary. 

“Nobody was tampering with the site,” she said.

"We actually weren't even that close to it. But they told us that us being in that vicinity would prevent horses from going into his trap."

Sundre RCMP said those arrested were warned not to go in the area. 

"The five individuals were warned by officers a few moments prior to entering the immediate site area that they would be committing mischief were they to proceed," RCMP said in release. "The individuals proceeded to the site despite the warning, and were subsequently arrested."

The arrested individuals were released but have to appear in a Didsbury court on March 31. RCMP said they have been placed under conditions to not return to the capture site or have contact with the capture licence holder. 

Checking on horse welfare, says advocate

June Burrows, 69, was among those arrested.

She said the group had gone to see the feral horses in the bait corral because there was word one had a broken leg and she wanted a closer look. 

"I'd heard that a horse got badly hurt, and being born and raised with horses, and even wild horses, I know how they react when they get captured. And I wanted to see, because you don't want a horse standing there with a broken leg in a pen," she said.

The province estimates there are 980 wild horses near Sundre based on an aerial survey, but believe the number could be higher. 

The Canadian Wild Horse Foundation says the count was done before massive flooding in June and this year's harsh winter, so the number may be much lower.

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

The Canadian Wild Horse Foundation, however, argues that the horses are native wildlife and should be protected as such.

Falling short of target, says licence holder

But Alberta could fall well short of its goal to reduce its wild horse population when permits expire on Saturday.

Two licences were issued by the government to capture up to 196 feral horses around Sundre. One rancher who holds a licence says the actual number will probably be around 20.

"I've just caught a few so far," said Bryn Thiessen, 54, who runs Helmer Creek Ranch near Sundre and has one of the licences. "I haven't had time and I won't do a poor job for the horses' sake and everybody else's.

"I can't foresee reaching the goal given the shortened capture season and the fact that nobody else has bothered. Other guys who have trapped in the past didn't bother applying."

Thiessen said he has managed to bring in three horses so far and the other permit holder, a friend of his, has captured a dozen.

"The maximum number of feral horses that can be captured is still 196. I'm not aware of an intention to extend the capture season at this point," Carrie Sancartier, a spokeswoman for Alberta Environment, said in an email Wednesday.

Trying to catch 'problem animals'

Thiessen has been trying to catch what he calls "problem animals" that hang out around roads. He said a few of the ones he was hoping to catch have been hit by logging and oil trucks.

Of the three he has captured so far, one is a colt and totally adoptable. The other two, a mare and a stallion, are in rough shape and are being assessed.

"Wherever possible we will try and find a safe place for them. But if you send somebody a five-year-old stud or a mare and they've got five acres and a five-foot-high fence, some will stay there, some will go through it and some will go over it," he said.

"All of a sudden you've got this horse running around the community that you can't catch, causing problems and ... potentially dangerous."

Thiessen said it's not a money-making proposition since an animal that has to be sent to slaughter is worth less than $200.

"I'm for capture not because I think it's a romantic idea or that I make money, but because it allows the most options for those horses."

'Scary' Facebook comments

There have been numerous debates over the years about the best way to deal with feral horses. Ideas have included mass slaughter or sterilization, but a roundup was considered the best compromise.

Thiessen, who is also a pastor, has taken some heat for his position.

"People have a right to an opinion," he said. "But Facebook is the new stoning ... Some of the comments are ludicrous and some are quite scary."

Capture of the horses involves a portable metal corral which is set up in a feeding area and baited with hay or salt. The animals trigger a trip wire when they enter and a weighted door closes behind them. They are then loaded onto trailers.

Thiessen said the province requires the corrals be checked every 48 hours, but most ranchers check them every day.

The Alberta government last issued a capture order in 2011 and 216 horses were removed.

"It was always a good idea," Thiessen said. "I think it needs to be talked about. I think there needs to be a management plan."

Below is the province's summary of the feral horse count in 2013. On mobile? Click here.

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story said the province of Alberta issued 200 licences to capture wild horses. In fact two licences were issued by the government to capture up to 196 feral horses.
    Feb 26, 2014 4:29 PM MT
With files from The Canadian Press