A big test for Alberta’s wild horses

Advocates who want to save the animals hope DNA testing will prove they qualify as native to the province

Are Alberta’s wild horses native to the province or just domestic horses gone feral?

A new DNA testing initiative aims to settle that question, and potentially end the battle over the wild horse cull.

“We’re trying to determine if there are any special genetics among the wildies of the eastern slopes so we can decide which steps need to be taken for the conservation of these animals,” said Darrell Glover, an Olds-area horse enthusiast and retired oilman who founded the group Help Alberta Wildies (HAWS).

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Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development maintains the 900 or so wild horses that roam from Kananaskis to Nordegg are descendants of animals used in logging and mining operations in the early 1900s. But Glover said he believes they are descendants of the Canadian horse, a breed developed in the East in the 1600s, mixed with draft horse lineage.

“That doesn’t make them any less special,” said Glover. “The Canadian horse and all breeds of draft are on the endangered list. We still feel that they’re special enough to deserve conservation and protection. We believe the government’s agenda is total eradication. And that’s what we’re fighting.”

HAWS, which has about 25 active members, is working with equine conservationist Victoria Tollman of North Carolina and Gus Cothran, a geneticist at Texas A&M University, who has one of the world’s largest databases of horse genetics. Cothran and Tollman came to Alberta to see the wild horses, and have put together the study to determine their genetic makeup.

“There have been so many theories as to where these horses are connected back to,” said Glover. “We’re really hoping that in 12 to 16 months, we could have some answers.”

Cothran will need about 100 hair samples from the wild horses, which will be collected from animals that have been captured or rescued from the wild.

“We go out and take photos of the horses in their captive environment. A number of them are tame enough that we can go and get hair from their tails and manes,” said Glover.

Since domestic horses have been released over the years, the wild horses will have bred with them, making their genetic makeup even harder to determine.

“That’s why we’re getting the genetic specialist, to figure out where they go back to. Clearly there had to be horses here before mining and logging. Where did they come from?” said Glover.

It’s hoped the findings will provide fodder to advocate for preservation of the wildies, but if it is determined their ancestors were horses that escaped or were let loose, then the fight will be over and the group will have to accept it, said Glover.

HAWS would also like to see a study done on the wild horse populations and their impact on the environment.

“Our basic position at HAWS is that if you don’t have the science, and if you don’t know how many are too many, why are you continuing to cull when there is a possibility for contraception? We just don’t see the logic in it,” said Glover.

Last winter, another wild horse advocacy group, the Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS), negotiated a five-year pilot project that will allow the group to test a contraceptive vaccine for wild mares, and adopt out captured animals. HAWS and WHOAS used to work together until last fall, when opinions differed on some issues. HAWS doesn’t believe in a cull and would like to get the population of wild horses to about 2,000 so that the herd can become more sustainable and genetic diversity can be maintained.

Anyone who has a wild horse or knows of one that has been captured can contact Glover by email at [email protected]

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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