A Tale Of Two Wildies

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Family Picnic,  by Melody Perez

Family Picnic, by Melody Perez – http://www.runninghorses.org

 

Written by:  Heather Clemenceau

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

These famous lines, which open “A Tale of Two Cities,” hint at the novel’s central tension between love and hatred. Indeed, the subject of opposite “pairs” is one of the major themes of Charles Dickens’ novel.

I’m reminded of both the similarities and differences between the wild horses of Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia and those of western Canada. How unequally treated they are in the eyes of the government!  On the one hand, the Sable Island horses are romanticized as being the descendants of shipwrecked horses, while the wild horses residing in Alberta and British Columbia however, not treated with such sentimentality. They are considered to be feral, inbred, and worthless, while spreading parasites and disease to other ungulates in the area. Both groups of present-day horses, however, are descendants of animals brought to these areas in the 1700s. When horses galloped across what would become the US border onto Alberta’s prairies, it was a bit of an overdue homecoming, having been perhaps 10,000 years since the province’s grasslands shuddered under equine hooves. Despite geography, all these horses share a common ancestry, as fossils indicate that North America is the original home of the horse where it first appeared millions of years ago. Yet both groups of horses are viewed in decidedly different fashions, primarily because up to this point, unlike Alberta, there have been no resources of interest that can be easily extracted from Sable Island.

Sable Island Horses tonemappedThe 42 km long, 1 km wide crescent-shaped island, really a large sandbar, is a remnant of the Wisconsin glacial deposit made between 10,000 and 45,000 years ago. The present population of 350-400 horses are the ancestors of horses used in a government operation established to assist ship-wrecked seafarers. The island, located about 290 km off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada, became Canada’s 43rd National Park in June 2013 – the first national park in the middle of a petroleum field. Perhaps because of this, the Bill to designate Sable Island a national park reserve was very nearly derailed in the House of Commons.

The possible pedigrees of these horses, who generally fall between 13 – 15 hh and range in colour from chestnuts to bays and blacks, with some horses bearing light coloured manes and tales, is unknown, but could consist of a number of breeds popular at the time, including ponies and drafts. Unlike the Alberta and BC wildies who are exposed to interference by people – fertility control, culling, round-ups, etc. the Sable Island horses are among the few wild horse populations that are entirely unmanaged.

It’s important to note that the Sable Island horses themselves are not directly protected, but rather the island itself is, historically under the “Canada Shipping Act,” not surprisingly, since the island is a hazard to marine vessels and the area nearby is a graveyard to about 350 ships and thousands of sailors. This protection is tenuous and exists only as long as the Canadian Coast Guard operates a station there. Since 1801, when the life-saving stations were established, there has been a continuous government presence on the island. In 2008, the Nova Scotia government designated the horses one of the official provincial symbols and they are also the official horse of Nova Scotia. The horses have the same status as other wildlife on the island, such as grey seals, roseate terns and the Ipswich savannah sparrow – undisturbed except where research permits are provided by Parks Canada. Biological samples are only taken from animals that have died of natural causes. Based on meticulous records of which horses have gone missing and how many carcasses have been found, it’s estimated that remains have been found for the majority of the horses that have been on the island for about the past 30 years.

Up to this point there have been no resources of interest to extract from the island itself, although that could change in the future. Because of the reserve status, there is a legal ban on surface drilling on the island, out to one nautical mile. horses on the dunes tonemappedThe designation as a national park reserve still allows for horizontal drilling underneath the island and low-level seismic testing on top of the island. The Sable Offshore Energy Project produces between 400 and 500 million cubic feet (14,000,000 m3) of natural gas and 20,000 barrels (3,200 m3) of natural gas liquids every day. But the government estimates there is $2.4 billion worth of natural gas and oil directly underneath Sable Island. However, it is too expensive to extract those resources with current technology. ExxonMobil, Shell Canada, Imperial Oil and other consortium partners have the exploration rights in the area. Environmental groups say the Bill designating the island as protected is not perfect because it allows for potential future development in and around the island.

In stark contrast to the status of the Sable Island horses, Alberta’s government announced in January it would give out licences to capture 200 of the free-roaming wild horses. There are no restrictions on what may be done with them either – while some could be domesticated, trained and sold to private homes, any others, including pregnant mares, older horses, and infirm horses, can be sold to slaughter.

According to the Ministry of Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, there are too many horses in the area, and they are competing for resources with cattle (a non-native species) and wildlife. These wild horses inhabit crown land territory of 23,000 km2. That is one horse for every 23 km2. This is very low density. The committee that made this decision included groups with a conflict of interest such as cattle ranchers (one of whom was issued a permit to capture horses), OHV (off-highway vehicle users) and the forestry industry. In addition to pressure by industry, there is also an historical sense of entitlement by certain groups, including hunters, trappers, rodeo suppliers, and outfitters. These groups all claim that roughly 900 or fewer horses have somehow decreased the population of deer and elk. All claim these “feral” horses threaten their use/exploitation of the land and its resources. The Conservative government of Alberta, formerly under Alison Redford, has close ties to the most powerful stake holders, oil and gas, the beef industry and forestry.

Stake holder list:

  • Alberta Equestrian Foundation & Alberta Horse Welfare Alliance of Canada
  • Alberta Farm Animal Care Association
  • Alberta Fish and Game Association
  • Alberta Professional Outfitters Society
  • Alberta Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA has withdrawn from the committee, even though they state that they did not know about it at the beginning, they also had not attended any of the previous meetings)
  • Alberta Veterinary Medical Association
  • Alberta Wilderness Association
  • Capture License Holder
  • Livestock Identification Services Ltd.
  • Rangeland Expert at the University of Alberta
  • RCMP Livestock Investigator
  • Rocky Mountain Forest Range Association
  • Spray Lake Sawmills
  • Sundre Forest Products
  • Wild Horses of Alberta Society
Alberta Wildies tonemapped

Photography by Ken Mcleod

A scientifically valid headcount of the horses has not been done since March 2013, before the flooding last June, and before the heavy snowfall this winter, both of which are believed by horse advocacy groups in the area to have taken a toll on the herd’s numbers. Despite not possessing an accurate count of the horses, the PC government insisted on moving ahead with the cull without a clear objective or enough scientific data to support it. Therefore, the government has operated blindly using misinformation to justify their actions. Various talking heads in government capacities also bizarrely claim that the wild horses have no known predators. There is absolutely no science behind any of their claims of rangeland degradation by the horses. It is a fact that domestic livestock grazing reduces wildlife populations by competing for food, water, and space, and degrading habitat. Habitat degradation caused by grazing also exposes prey species to increased predation (due to lost vegetative cover for concealment and escape), resulting in further declines in those populations. The vast majority of forage and water resources in the West are devoted to domestic livestock grazing.

Ultimately, only 15 horses were captured, despite the covert behaviour of the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD) leading up to the 2014 capture season. By no means did ESRD demonstrate any commitment to the recommendations of a clear and transparent, honest communication amongst all stakeholders, which was tabled at the Feral Horse Advisory Committee. In fact, ESRD repeatedly denied capture permits were issued when numerous inquiries were put to them in the weeks preceding the announcement. Jason Bradley (one of two individuals to whom the original permit for 200 horses was ultimately issued – Brynn Thiessen is the second.  Two other former permit owners declined to participate this year), is on the Steering Committee and was therefore provided with advance information about the issuance of his capture permit so that he could prepare his site in advance, while withholding that information from other members of the Steering Committee and members of the general public. This is a clear conflict-of-interest. Of these captured horses, three mares, possibly heavily in foal, were removed, sold to a third party and apparently slaughtered within a scant few days, despite Alberta Horse Industry (and therefore Canadian Food Inspection Agency) regulations that state that “at least six continuous months of documented acceptable history is required for an equine presented for processing in an establishment inspected by CFIA.”

So,  by an accident of geography, the Sable Island horses are left alone to enjoy their days free from human interference. It’s not that the government values the horses themselves, but unlike the Alberta wildies, they have no reason at this time

Ken McLeod Horses tonemapped

Photography by Ken Mcleod

to disturb them. Now the future of Sable Island and the Station is in question, and the Canadian government is considering various options – one of which is to close the Station, thus ending 200 years of full-time human presence and stewardship. This option, combined with the encroachment of companies who are interested in oil and natural gas exploration would put not only the horses, but all the island’s flora and fauna at serious risk.

You can be sure if gas or oil could be easily extracted from Sable Island,  or the grass growing on the island was found to be of benefit to cattle grazing, then all of a sudden there would be too many horses on the island and a “management” plan would have to be implemented.

Please register your complaints about the handling of the Alberta free-roaming horses with the following individuals/agencies:
Livingston, Don

Land Management / Planning Forester
Land and Range Management
Environment and Sustainable Resource Development
2nd fl Provincial Building
4919 – 51 Street
Rocky Mountain House, AB
T4T 1B3
Phone: 403 845-8236
Fax: 403 845-4750
E-mail: don.livingston@gov.ab.ca

Kesseler, Rob

Unit Lead, Integrated Operations
Rangeland Integration Section
Environment and Sustainable Resource Development
4th fl Great West Life Building
9920 – 108 Street
Edmonton, AB
T5K 2M4
Phone: 780 422-4568
Fax: 780 422-0454
E-mail: rob.kesseler@gov.ab.ca

Newsham, Helen

Section Head
Rangeland Integration Section
Environment and Sustainable Resource Development
4th fl Great West Life Building
9920 – 108 Street
Edmonton, AB
T5K 2M4
Phone: 780 427-4764
Fax: 780 422-0454
E-mail: helen.newsham@gov.ab.ca

Campbell, Robin, Honourable

Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource
Development, Government House Leader
Members of Executive Council
Executive Branch
323 Legislature Building
10800 – 97 Avenue
Edmonton, AB
T5K 2B6
Phone: 780 427-2391
Fax: 780 422-6259

Hancock, Dave,  Honourable

Premier
Office of the Premier
Executive Branch
307 Legislature Building
10800 – 97 Avenue
Edmonton, AB
T5K 2B6
Phone: 780 427-2251
Fax: 780 427-1349
E-mail: premier@gov.ab.ca

Booth, Nikki

Issues Manager
Communications
Environment and Sustainable Resource Development
12th fl Petroleum Plaza ST
9915 – 108 Street
Edmonton, AB
T5K 2G8
Phone: 780 427-6233
Fax: 780 422-6339
E-mail: nikki.booth@gov.ab.ca

Sancartier, Carrie

Public Affairs Officer
Communications
Environment and Sustainable Resource Development
12th fl Petroleum Plaza ST
9915 – 108 Street
Edmonton, AB
T5K 2G8
Phone: 780 644-8372
Fax: 780 422-6339
E-mail: carrie.sancartier@gov.ab.ca

 

Legends of the Dance by Melody Perez

Legends of the Dance by Melody Perez – http://www.runninghorses.org

 

 

 

 

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9 responses »

  1. Pingback: A Tale Of Two Wildies | Canadian Horse Defence Coalition's Blog

  2. Very informative article,as usual.I so agree with you, Heather, that the Sable Island horses are safe only until the money men enter the equasion. I followed the decision and implementation of the Alberta wild horse capture .I was heartened by the action oriented citizens who fought valiantly to stop it, hoping for a more positive outcome, but your government is similar to mine here in the US: namely they NEVER listen to their citizens,instead, they cater to the those who put money into politicians’ pockets. It’s hard to see a more humane solution when the odds are always against those that have no monatery value or power. I find here in the US there are many people who care about our wild horses, but it seems to me that what is needed is one large umbrella organization that has 100,000 plus members who will act as one entity to advocate for preserving our wild horses as was spelled out in the original wild and free roaming horse and burro act of 1971. After all, that is what Wild Horse Annie managed to pull off to get that law passed, even though it took her 20 years!

  3. This is the same thing that is happening to the wild horses here in the US. The BLM, Bureau of Land Management , have rounded up so many horses and stuck them in holding pens that there is only about 18,000 if that many, left across 10 states, but you never see the number of cattle dropping at all. One horse to 50 or more cows. Cows destroy any grazing they are turned loose on that does not even count the thousands of sheep, that like cows they don’t have upper teeth to cut the grass off above the root like horses do. Horses bite off the grass which leaves it for deer and other grazers. Cows and sheep pull up the grass root and all.

  4. Thank you Heather for taking the time to write about all wild horses — I know that your writing results in saving some of their lives.

  5. Excellent article. Heather! Happy Horse Spring. Sure hope we can turn the situation around in the rest of Canada for the horses and counter the dishonest and selfishly motivated disinformation campaign against them!

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