Nova Scotia

Sable Island horses not likely to go extinct soon, says expert

One of the authors on a report on Sable Island disputes the idea that the island's horses could face extinction any time in the near future.

Report author says discussion of extinction just hypothetical

According to researchers living on Sable Island, there are approximately 550 horses living there. (Philip McLoughlin/University of Saskatchewan)

Sable Island's horses are not in danger of extinction any time soon, says a scientist who worked on a report on the future of the island for Parks Canada.

Based on that report, which was obtained through the Access to Information Act, CBC News recently ran a story about the possible extinction of the horses.

The report looks at the possibility that the horses could become extinct due to inbreeding and climate change. 

"Nowhere do we say that the horses are going to go extinct," said Tim Frasier, a biology professor at Saint Mary's University and lead author of the chapter on the horses.

"It is a small population, in a small location, and there are certain concerns for any small population. So we discuss those general concerns and provide recommendations to Parks Canada just to monitor … those potential problems."

The report was prepared for Parks Canada when it took over responsibility for the island, to identify any potential issues with Canada's newest national park.

The horses could, conceivably, suffer from inbreeding in the future because of their isolation, but there are normally signs that such a problem is coming, said Frasier. One is a declining birth rate.

The herd population is currently around 550 — an all-time high for the island.

"This population has had crashes periodically in the past and since it's at an all-time high, I wouldn't be surprised if there is a crash soon," said Frasier.

"But this is a continuation of a natural cycle."

It's possible that population crashes could be caused by harsh weather, but there is not enough information on the Sable horse population to say for sure. That's one of the areas the report recommends that Parks Canada study further.

The horses have been on the island for hundreds of years, but people continued to bring new horses there into the 1960s. That means the population has only been genetically isolated for about 50 years.

"It's only maybe six horse generations," said Frasier.

"We would normally expect genetic diversity to be lost over hundreds of generations."