Experts challenge science behind Alberta's wild horse culls

Experts from across North America met in southern Alberta Friday for a symposium on preserving the province's wild horse populations.

'We should be protecting these horses instead of eradicating them'

A group of wild horses stands near a highway in Alberta on May 5, 2014. (Bill Graveland/Canadian Press)

Experts from across North America met in southern Alberta Friday for a symposium on preserving the province's wild horse populations. 

Julie Woodyear, campaign director for Zoocheck, one of the groups behind the event, said many of the speakers — including veterinary geneticists, biologists and paleontologists — have been challenging the province's policy of rounding up wild horses to limit the population.

"We've been challenging the science," said Woodyear​ at the Cochrane event, who accused the government of having little scientific backing behind its horse management programs.

Julie Woodyear is the campaign director for Zoocheck. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

The government has argued in the past that wild horses don't deserve special protections because they could be feral — descended from escaped or released domestic horses used for logging and mining operations approximately a century ago — and would therefore fall under the Alberta Stray Animals Act. 

Feral horses have been periodically captured by the province since the 1950s, and are sold either to private owners or for slaughter. 

"We should be protecting these horses instead of eradicating them," said B.C.-based biologist Wayne McCrory, who authored a 2015 Zoocheck study that made recommendations for the province's horse management practices. 

"Canada, unlike the United States, has not protected our horses."

Advocates have argued the animals play a role in the province's heritage. 

Symposium attendees heard that genetic lines in Alberta's horse populations point to horses that were likely acquired by Indigenous peoples in the early 1700s — which would invalidate the province's argument that the horses have more recently become feral — while another speaker discussed the cultural importance of wild horses to First Nations.

Corleigh Powderface said she wants more First Nations input on the province's wild horse management. (Anis Heydari/CBC)

Corleigh Powderface, who attended the event from Stoney Nakoda First Nation, said her culture has a strong connection with wild horses that dates back countless generations.

"We have such a strong spiritual connection with horses. And that's traditional. That comes back from day one, day one when we were here with Mother Nature, before colonialism. We had that relationship with all animals, but specifically horses," she said.

Her father, Sykes Powderface, was also in attendance. He said it's important for First Nations people to have input on the preservation of horses in the province.

"There needs to be more consultation with the First Nations … they're very much a part of our overall ecosystem. They provide for us, they're our guides, and those are things that need to be talked about," he said. 

Alberta's 2018 feral horse count, which was undertaken in January, found 1,721 horses in Brazeau, Clearwater, Elbow, Ghost River, Nordegg and Sundre areas. 

The count, which was done by helicopter, was up from 1,202, but the province said that might not necessarily be due to a strong reproductive rate and could instead be related to illegally released domestic horses.

Milder winters also may have contributed to the increase in horse populations over the past few years. 

No representatives from the Government of Alberta attended Friday's symposium, but Woodyear said a video of the event will be sent to the minister of environment and parks. 

"These horses are important culturally for Alberta. They are a tourism opportunity," she said. 

CBC has reached out to the minister's office for comment. 

With files from Anis Heydari