Alberta Is Set To Make It Legal To Slaughter Its Wild Horses

Alberta's wild horse population has become an issue for farmers. The provincial government has advised that licenses be distributed that allow interested parties to cull them in designated areas. Dave Dean examines the debate.

Feb 19 2014, 7:46pm

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In a province and region that models its image on stampedes, wild roses, Stetson hats and cowboy culture, it’s kind of ironic that, according to the provincial government, the iconic Albertan wild horse—you know, the ones with red and orange manes flowing in the breeze, as they gallop towards the sunset over windswept prairies—have become as much a pest to rural Alberta as the raccoon is to downtown Toronto.

The thing is, these horses aren’t actually native to the prairies. They barged their way into the ecosystem in the early 1900s when some domesticated steeds went rogue and ditched their pioneers’ early mining and logging operations. Since then, they’ve been roaming the prairies far and wide—providing photo-ops for cross-country drivers and inspiring episodes of CBC’s Heartland—all the while apparently encroaching on the food sources of species that have been more fragile in the region over the past hundred years, such as elk.

But the government’s gripe with the horses isn’t really about how they’re effecting the elk (who in the past 10 years have made such a strong comeback that now even ranchers are complaining about them) and the ecosystem, but rather how these non-native, feral runabouts are affecting the farmers who own the thousands of square kilometre ranches where the horses are living. They’re infringing on bovine territory, and hence, grazing into the profits of Alberta’s powerful livestock lobby.

“These are feral animals. They are impacting productivity on the land, they are impacting livestock, they are impacting fencing and that sort of thing,” said Premier Alison Redford speaking to reporters last week in Lethbridge. “I understand that people do have concerns and can get quite emotional about this, but at the end of the day, the decisions... have to be made in the context of the best possible use of our resources.” Those ‘decisions’ of which Premier Redford speaks, are the decisions that have been made to have Alberta’s wild horses culled.

By counting horses from small planes or helicopters, the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development has estimated that in the past year, their numbers have debatably grown from 778 to 980 horses, and that these whole 198 more horses have been so detrimental to livestock production that the ESRD has determined the only way to sensibly deal with the issue is to tie their lassos and get wranglin’.

To set the parameters for a cull, the ESRD established the tactfully named Feral Horse Advisory Committee (because the Rolling Stones never sung about feral, feral horses ever dragging anyone away).

The committee has advised that licenses be distributed to interested parties (cowboys) who, in designated areas where the wild horses are deemed to be the most problematic, can round up the beasts and do with them as they please. Which, in this case, likely means a trip to the glue factory or slaughterhouse.

Obviously, the killing of innocent horsies can stir certain kinds of people pretty emotionally, so it’s not surprising that wild horse rights groups have started protesting and petitioning. The Wild Horses of Alberta Society have been active in their attempts to stop the cull from going ahead, a petition to “Save Alberta’s Wild Horses—A Heritage Animal—Stop the 2014 Cull” has reached over 16,000 signatures and last week, protesters cleverly targeted Redford as she attended a Year of the Horse celebration in Calgary’s Chinatown. Even Calgary songstress Jann Arden decided to throw her two cents in on Sunday, calling the horse cull for slaughter “new heights of being disgusting.”

But it hasn’t all been yelling and screaming from the opposition camp, and there have been alternatives proposed. Rather than round up and kill the horses, it has been suggested by at least one veterinarian that the horses could be kept in check with a method of injection contraception, that leaves a few females infertile for a few years and curbs reproduction.

This scientific approach, and the cynicism of horse groups saying that killing wild horses is like killing a part of Albertan identity, has found activists an unlikely ally in the far-right, Opposition Wild Rose Party’s environmental critic, Joe Anglin. “We don’t have answers to any questions and now they’re going to move forward and cull the herd,” said Joe, in a comment to the Globe and Mail, “A lot of Albertans identify with the horse culture. It’s something that’s sort of germane to our past of independence and strength. It fits into the Alberta psyche, so there’s a lot of emotion attached to the issue.”

In all honesty, if the scientists say these things need to happen every now and again to keep everything in check for the greater good, I tend to believe them. Although a lot of it might have to do with pressure from the livestock lobby, I’m sure that one year’s roundup won’t put an end to wild horses roaming Alberta’s prairies.

What is intriguing, however, is that while southern Albertans are happy to turn a blind eye to the Mordoresque scenes of Fort McMurray to enjoy the benefits of good jobs and tax breaks—they get riled up when some horses might be killed? This Albertan identity and ‘horse culture’ seems a little convoluted and begs the question—what would the reaction be if the tar sands threatened the horses?


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