Calgary

Scientists to use DNA to determine origin of Alberta's wild horses

A project is underway to collect DNA from horses on the Eastern Slopes to try to find out if they are unique. The government argues that the horses don't deserve special protection because they are feral — descendants of domestic horses.

Project will determine with animals are unique and deserving of protection

A project is underway to collect DNA from Alberta horses described as wild to try to find out if they are unique. (Jeff McIntosh/ Canadian Press)

Modern science is going to be used to help determine the origin of about 900 wild horses that roam in western Alberta.

A project is underway to collect DNA from horses on the Eastern Slopes to try to find out if they are unique.

The government argues that the horses don't deserve special protection because they are feral — descendants of domestic horses.

But horse activists argue the animals may be native to the province.

Looking for rare-breed background

Some say they should be allowed to roam free without annual culling permitted by the government.

The province has argued that the horses are not a native breed but descendants of horses once used in the logging and mining industry more than 100 years ago. (CBC)

The group Help Alberta Wildies says it might get the government to rethink its approach if the horse DNA can find some rare-breed background.

The group is partnering with U.S. equine conservationist Victoria Tollman from North Carolina and Gus Cothran, a professor at Texas A&M University, who is involved in horse genetics.

Wildies spokesman Darrell Glover will collect hair samples from the horses and send them to Tollman. She will process the samples and underwrite and co-ordinate the work. Cothran will actually analyze the samples. The results are to be published.

It's expected the collection and analysis will take 12 to 16 months.

First sample collected

The first sample has been taken from a wild colt that Glover rescued in 2014. The horse is on his ranch north of Olds. He is gathering more samples this week from horses in the Strathmore area.

Glover said the project needs about 100 samples so that any trend can be observed.

"We know there's going to be a certain amount of domestic horses introduced into these breeds,... so it's going to be a challenging effort to dissect all of that and get back to a horse that's been here for hundreds of years.

"We're trying to prove that there is a reason for them to be here and that they have been here a long time."

'The argument will be over'

But if it's determined the origin of the horses is domestic?

"Well, the argument will be over then" and the group will have to accept it, Glover said.

He was one of several protesters arrested last year near a wild horse cull. No charges were laid.

The province allows a certain number of horses to be captured every year. It says the population needs to be controlled to protect the natural ecosystem in the area.

Some animals are auctioned to horse owners, some are adopted and others make their way to slaughter.

Another advocacy group, the Wild Horses of Alberta Society, is involved in a pilot project with the province that involves a contraceptive vaccine for wild mares.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now