The Alberta government has counted 10 per cent fewer wild horses in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains this year, but says it is too early to say whether it will rein in an annual roundup of some of these animals. 

Alberta Environment spokeswoman Carrie Sancartier said 880 feral horses were counted over five days in March, down by about 100 from 2013. 

These latest numbers were presented this week to a committee that advises the government on what to do with the horses, which are not native to the region and compete for grass with cattle and wild animals such as elk. 

"This will provide important information for the committee as it considers where to target management efforts in the future," Sancartier said Wednesday. "There hasn't been a decision made on a capture season for next year." 

The committee includes horse welfare, livestock, forestry, hunting and conservation groups. 

Debate over wild horse culling

Sancartier said the actual number of horses along the foothills could be higher because the animals are counted from the air by helicopter. 

The province said just 15 of the horses were rounded up during the last capture season, which can run from Nov. 1 until March 1, despite permits that would have allowed as many as 200 to be taken. 

The roundup drew the ire of animal rights activists who said some of the captured horses were destined for slaughterhouses. 

The culling is also opposed by some people who believe the horses should be treated as part of Alberta's cowboy heritage. 

Earlier this year the government said the capture was necessary to keep a ballooning population in check. 

Bill desBarres of the Alberta Equestrian Federation is a member of Alberta's feral horse advisory committee. He said up to 50 horses either died or were removed over the fall and winter from the herds along the foothills. 

Some were captured and others were found wandering outside the six areas where they freely roam. 

He said the drop in numbers is no reason for concern at this point and said it is too early to make a decision about whether another roundup is needed. 

"It does not ring any alarm bells," he said.  

Issue of management

The challenge is to carefully manage the population of the horses to ensure they have enough to eat. 

"Obviously if they run out of food it is not humane to leave them out there to starve." 

Alberta Environment says wild horses like to gather in grassland areas, including native grasslands like rough fescue, which are sensitive to over-grazing, especially in the spring. Ranchers pay fees to the government to use these same areas to graze livestock. 

The government says these horses have no natural predators, although a few are sometimes killed by wolves or cougars. 

The horses are descendants of domestic animals used in logging and mining operations in the early 1900s.

DesBarres said the committee will make its recommendation to the government about whether another roundup is needed to help control the size of the wild horse population as early as July.