The wild horse cull has ended, but not the controversy.
Just 15 horses were captured — a small fraction of the 196 allowed under permits issued by the province.
This year’s short season was likely a factor, said a government spokesperson. Legislation allows the capture season to run from Nov. 1 to March 1, but this year’s season began in the third week in January and ended Feb. 28.
“Another reason is that there were fewer people applying for capture licences than in the past, but I couldn’t speculate on why that is,” said Carrie Sancartier, spokesperson for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development.
Three permits were issued for this year, but only two were picked up. Permit holder Jason Bradley caught the largest number — 12 horses. But critics say the low capture numbers are proof the cull wasn’t needed.
“There have been two really harsh springs that have affected the wild horse foal survival rate,” said Bob Henderson, president of the Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS). “We thought it would be an excellent opportunity this winter to establish whether or not the wild horse population is ballooning out of control the way that the SRD would like you to believe. Or if Mother Nature and natural biological factors are actually working to control the number of horses.”
An aerial survey last March estimated the wild horse population at 980 animals — which suggested their numbers (778 in 2012) were rising rapidly. But Henderson said provincial officials over-estimate both conception rates and how many foals survive their first year. However, protests near the capture site may also have been a factor, he admitted.
Bradley has previously charged that opponents of the capture have trespassed on his land, and used snowmobiles to drive horses away from capture sites or camped near them to deter the animals from coming near them.
Although subjected to a storm of criticism, especially in social media, one of the permit holders worked with WHOAS to capture three horses that had wandered onto private property. Permit holder Bryn Thiessen also helped relocate the three horses to the property of a WHOAS board member, where the group is working to gentle them with hopes of future adoption.
Some of the 15 horses captured this winter have also been sent to new homes.
“One of the biggest reasons they were re-homed is due to the outcry that was going on at the time,” said Henderson.
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WHOAS will continue to push for a contraception program, which uses a special gun to shoot barbless implants containing contraceptives, he said. Dr. Judith Samson-French, a veterinarian who successfully implemented contraception in dog populations on reservations in northern Alberta, outlined the program at a meeting of the provincially appointed Feral Horses Advisory Committee earlier this month. The committee, composed of 15 stakeholder groups, didn’t make a decision on the program, but Henderson said government officials at the meeting also didn’t offer supporting evidence to prove that the wild horse population numbers were too high, or that the horses were damaging the habitat.
“We’re certainly opposed to any cull,” said Henderson. “We’ve got a humane alternative to the way that we’re doing things now, so why wouldn’t you take the opportunity to put into place this contraception program, and at least see what it can do.”
Sancartier said it’s too early to say if capture permits will be issued again next winter.
Meanwhile, an investigation has concluded a deceased wild horse found in Clearwater County on Feb. 28 was not shot as first suspected.
There was blood around the animal’s corpse, so the forensic unit of Alberta Fish and Wildlife Enforcement branch was called in. But a necropsy showed there was no foul play, said Constable Val Dennis with the Sundre RCMP detachment.
“It looks suspicious, but it was natural,” said Dennis. “It is possible for horses to die of natural causes and for someone to suspect foul play, but in this case, there was none.”