Accusations fly as battle over wild horse cull heats up

Backers of cull say the rising number of wild horses is damaging sensitive rangeland, 
but critics say it is inhumane and there are better alternatives

This year’s cull of wild horses has become ugly.

Critics have launched an intense campaign, and its most well-known member — renowned singer Jann Arden — is alleging a rancher given the permit to capture the wild horses is a beneficiary of political favouritism.

But permit holder Jason Bradley says he’s been personally threatened and trespassers have invaded his property when all he is doing is protecting sensitive rangeland from skyrocketing numbers of feral horses.

What is certain is that both sides are dug in.

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“It’s just wrong on every level and I feel very passionate about it,” said Arden.

The singer, who lives near Bragg Creek, has been using her Twitter account to rally her 91,000 followers into opposing the cull, and frequently lambastes Bradley and Premier Alison Redford, whom she claims is friends with the rancher.

“There are questions that need to be asked,” she said in an interview. “There are wild horses all over Alberta, but this is the only area that the government of Alberta is intensely involved with. There’s no other place doing this. Someone needs to connect the dots.”

Public opposition stopped the cull in 2013, but it resumed following an aerial survey last March that estimated the wild horse population had risen to 980 animals (versus 778 in 2012). The horses roam the foothills of the Rocky Mountains from Kananaskis country north to Nordegg (and even as far north as Edson and Hinton). The aerial survey prompted Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) to issue two permits in January for capture of up to 196 horses. The capture was due to end March 1, but there are rumours that date could be extended. The main horse capture site is near Sundre.

Keeping the number of wild horses in check is a sound environmental practice, said ESRD spokesperson Carrie Sancartier.

“Feral horses tend to gather in grassland areas, particularly areas that have a lot of rough fescue,” said Sancartier. “This native grass is quite sensitive to overgrazing in the spring when the horses are on the rangeland. We’re trying to manage this land to make sure there’s enough of this resource for the feral horses, wildlife and livestock such as cattle in this area.”

Not so, according to Bob Henderson, president of the Wild Horse of Alberta Society (WHOAS),

“This is tens of thousands of acres,” he said. “They’re definitely not overrunning the countryside and they’re not eating the grasses and forages away from the wildlife and the leaseholders.”

Henderson also criticized the capture method, which uses pens (stocked with salt and hay) that close after animals enter.

This method often results in mares being separated from their foals, and there are no regulations as to how the horses are captured or handled, he said.

“They say it’s a humane method of capture, and it’s really not,” he said.

Sancartier said the government requires pens be checked daily but Henderson said it’s difficult to know how the captures are being handled.

More from the Alberta Farmer Express website: What to do about Alberta’s herds of wild horses?

Bradley did not return calls asking for comment, but he and the other permit holder, Bryn Thiessen, gave interviews to The Calgary Herald and Global TV. Bradley said in addition to being attacked via social media, he has received threatening calls and emails. He also said people drive their cars onto his land and have used snowmobiles to drive the horses away from his traps. Others are camping around the area to keep the horses away.

He also said critics have failed to do their homework. He told Global TV the majority of the horses are resold and only those he can’t find homes for are sent to slaughter. Bradley argues the horses are having a negative impact on rangeland.

But Henderson said there is no scientific evidence to back that claim, and even ranchers have mixed views

“Some of them realize that to be good stewards of the land, they have to share the land with everything that’s there, including the horses,” he said. “But there are a few that think that if you take one horse out, you get to add more cow-calf pairs onto the lease, so they’re looking at it from that aspect.”

WHOAS would like to build a handling facility designed specifically for wild horses, with a goal of capturing younger animals, and gentling them so they could be adopted. However, the government has dismissed this idea, Henderson said.

The group would also like to work with Dr. Judith Samson-French, a veterinarian from Bragg Creek who has successfully controlled dog and cat populations on First Nations reserves by using contraceptive implants. The process for horses would use a special gun to shoot barbless implants containing contraceptives. But Arden said this solution has been rejected by the Feral Horses Advisory Committee, which is composed of 15 stakeholder groups including a rangeland expert, along with reps from the Rocky Mountain Forest Range Association, Spray Lake Sawmills, the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association, and WHOAS. The committee recommended this year’s cull.

“Sure, we’re griping, but we think there are better ways to control the population than this wholesale capture of 200 horses,” said Henderson.

The local Wildrose MLA is also critical of the process.

Joe Anglin said he recognizes that wildlife can be a problem, but says the province needs to justify the cull.

“They are not giving us any data as to how they came up with this number,” said Anglin. “They’re just guessing at it. That’s not a way to manage the environment.”

Any study needs to go beyond a survey of horse numbers and look at their impact on the habitat, he said.

The province has done those assessments, said Sancartier.

“Horses can only be captured in areas where we see impact on the rangeland,” she said.

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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