We’re not just horsing around: managing Alberta’s feral horse population

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For many people, the horse – not the dog or the cat – is the true ‘man’s best friend.’ They’re our workhorses, friends, and companions, and they’ve been a part of our culture for thousands of years.

But even though horses are a common sight in Alberta, they’re not native to our province. Because they’re not a natural part of our ecosystem, they have few natural predators. When their population grows unchecked, they compete with native species for food – and that can have serious consequences.

Although free-ranging horses might look like they belong on the landscape, the truth is a bit more complicated.

Although free-ranging horses might look like they belong on the landscape, the truth is a bit more complicated.

What are feral horses?

Alberta’s free-ranging horses are descended from (and in many cases, still are) domestic animals – not wildlife. That’s why we call them ‘feral’.

Where did they come from? Well, in the early twentieth century, lots of horses were used in logging and mining operations – and when those operations stopped, all the horses were turned loose.

The offspring of these horses have become ‘feral’ horses that live in areas close to the initial logging and mining operations. When other domestic horses are turned loose or escape from ranches, they join this population.

Why do we need to manage them?

Once these animals become part of the landscape, it might make sense to see them as ‘wild’ animals. But it’s not that simple. Because feral horses are not part of our natural ecosystems, their population can grow very quickly, and put serious pressure on our native plants and animals.

Essentially, the equation is simple: scarce food + too few predators = trouble.

Food:

Grasslands are a very popular food source in Alberta – both for wildlife, like elk, and for livestock, like cattle.

In the spring, when the plants are still growing, these grasslands are sensitive to over-grazing. That’s why we prohibit livestock grazing until the summer months, and issue more hunting licences when we need to keep certain wildlife populations in check.

Alberta’s feral horse population eats the same grasses as other species do, and they tend to graze heavily in the spring. To prevent overgrazing, we need to keep their population manageable.

Predators: 

The research we’ve done shows that feral horses don’t really have any natural predators – they’re sometimes killed by wolves and cougars, but not often. With no natural check on their population, wild horse populations can quickly grow too big for the landscape to support.

Cougars and wolves are natural predators of other hooved species, but not feral horses.

Cougars and wolves are natural predators of other hooved animals, but not feral horses.

This is the first post in a three-part series about how we manage Alberta’s feral horse population. You can read the second and third posts here: 

6 thoughts on “We’re not just horsing around: managing Alberta’s feral horse population

  1. The ERSD needs to brush up on their ecology..Science has proven that the free-roaming wildhorses are native to Alberta..when will the ERSD accept the truth about these animals..
    At this time of the year the mares are heavy in foal and a capture with 3 – 4 feet of snow puts them at risk…their welfare is jeopardized..
    A moratoruim should be put in place for the next 3 years due to the drastic cull in Dec 2012. Most of these animals ended up being butchered at Bouvry Exports…this is so wrong..they are born in the wild and they belong there. Humans have to interfere with Mother Nature when she is capable of culling them..most of the foals this year are stuck in the snow banks and will die if not rescued..Winter is hard on these animals especially this winter and they do have predators…bears, cougars, wolves just like all other wildlife..
    The horse built this country after we domesticated them..a return to the wild brings back the wildness..some of them were domesticated and most of the horses out there today are wild..born and bred WILD..
    Since the 1800’s the ranchers have no tolerance for the horses as they want all of the Crown Land for their cattle…these cattle were introduced to the range and they definitely ARE NOT NATIVE…so I guess the ERSD should have a capture on all the cattle roaming on Crown Land too.

  2. Controlling populations DOES NOT have to mean “capture and kill” !! There are alternatives to this and ESRD, is aware of them. They just won’t talk about them. So let’s not assume that all Albertans, are so naïve !!

  3. I am of the opinion that Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development would like to destroy wild/feral horses in Alberta. Most Albertans would have little problem with the capture if you were to implement regulations to prevent the killing of the horses. The solution would be simple, only allow the capture of the young horses that would be trainable (not to be sold for meat) and inject the mares so they will not cycle. It is so simple solution and everyone would be happy.

  4. I understand that there needs to a type of management process; however this capture and slaughter practice is not it. What angers me the most is how ESRD had blantly denied that the cull was going to happen this year. Even though it was obvious that certain people with permits already had the in’s on this and was already preparing the trap sites BEFORE the cull was publicly announced. What were their intentions on that move?! Probably not an honorable one! More likely they were trying to get a head start to catch more than anyone else to make even more money would be my guess!
    An actual ACCURATE head count should have been done later in the spring. It should have been done AFTER this harsh winter and the predators took a round out of the weak, starving horses. Contrary to what supporters believe, I don’t care how big a horse is, they will not have the strength to keep warding off packs of wolves or the cougars that actually do stalk their prey and wait for the opportune time to strike! This cull is completely unnecessary this year and the fact that ESRD are hitting these horses at their most vulnerable time right now is absolutely disgusting human conduct. These animals don’t stand a chance.
    These “poachers” should NOT prosper from the capture and slaughter of these beautiful majestic animals. No doubt there was a vote for the cull to proceed this year. When some of these voters ARE the “poachers” themselves! It gives these “poachers” a chance to line their pockets with no out of cost expense to them other than a little hay (that they so generously “donate” to lure in these hungry aniamls). They haven’t bought a single horse nor did they have to raise them or feed them, yet what do they stand to make? THOUSANDS of dollars of basically free easy cash! Sounds like a hell of an incentive if you were to ask my opinion!
    I am also angered by how ESRD, the government officials and the “poachers” themselves , try feeding the public their “fluffy” side of the story, thinking they can get people to see their side of the story and that things really are not as bad as we are making it out to be. They SAY there are humane regulations that are enforced for these animals during capture, and transportation (to their death). I don’t believe a word of it. These are animals that have never been man handled before, I highly doubt these “poachers” are going to be gentle while capturing and loading these animals. I mean what do they care right?! As most of these animals are just being sent to slaughter anyways! They will use whatever means necessary to get them loaded and sent off to be slaughtered. The only thing they care about is getting their “return” as quickly and easily as possible. I also don’t believe that they make any real effort to try re-home these animals. MAYBE the odd one finds a home, but for these “poachers” to make an actual honest effort would be giving them way to much credit and is extremely unlikely as that would cost them time to make their “hard-earned” money. As it is these “poachers” are given way too much power. Giving heartless “poachers” the right to do away with these animals as they please is just a bad, bad, bad idea!
    I’m glad to see people’s names being drug through the mud now. They are trying to make themselves out to be the “good guys”, and that they are ONLY doing this for the greater good of the environment! What they are doing is not honorable in the slightest! It is disgusting and they should be called out for their actions AND their true intentions!

    • Hi – just a quick note: calling capture permit holders “poachers” is actually defamatory language. ESRD takes poaching very seriously – the capture season is not an example of poaching, and that is not a matter of opinion. I have approved this comment, but will not be approving any more with references like this. Please keep your comments civil and avoid making personal attacks and insults.

  5. Pingback: Statement from the Alberta ESRD on Feral Horse Population -

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