Hoofing it across Alberta

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November 26, 2015 12:23 PM

A local man's quest to save the wild stock

Ken McLeod realizes he’s just one man, but he hopes his efforts will help save those without a voice, Alberta’s wild horses.
Since he was just a kid, McLeod said he had a soft spot for the free horses that gallop across southern Alberta’s foothills.
Both his father and grandfather before him used to domesticate the animals and sell them to the Canadian Cavalry.
McLeod personally trained his first, a wild horse named Johnny Law, when he was just 12 years old.
Now, he said he believes the province’s wild horses are under threat by the Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD).
The ESRD has been culling the beasts because they overgraze cattle pastures and are worth money when broken in and sold privately, or even worse for horse lovers, butchered and sold for meat.
“They’ve run in the foothills for hundreds of years, long before the white man ever came there, and it’s basically home to the natural horse of the wild,” McLeod said.
“It’s just a horrible thing that’s been happening with these horses and we better protect them before it is too late.”
McLeod says the ESRD’s claim that the horses are eating all the grazing grass for cattle is “very untrue.”
He’s spent months in the wild, studying the animals and talking to ecologists and other wildlife specialists, and the claims of overgrazing don’t hold any weight for the Alcurve, Alta. man.
There have been close to 50 studies done on the theory, some as recent as a few weeks ago, none of which have turned up evidence to support the accusations.
The horses are mainly found on crown land, where the provincial government offers leases to ranchers, and this is where McLeod thinks the real problem is.
“It’s just the ranchers leasing the land that basically want free horses for their own greed and that’s been proven by many people,” he said.
The area he studies is west of Sundre, stretching nearly 95-km and about 65-km wide, which he said is plenty of space for the animals to keep to themselves.
Government reports say there are upwards of 600 wild horses left in the area, but McLeod, who visits the horses every few months for two to eight weeks at a time, said according to his observations, the number is likely closer to 450.
The most recent cull happened in winter of 2014 when the ESRD trapped 48 head of horses in hidden corals set up throughout the WHAT area.
Culls tend to happen in mid-winter, usually around February, when horses are hungry and easily coaxed into the traps with feed that is left for them.
The ESRD remove up to a band at a time, a band of horses being anywhere from three to 14 head, and more than 90 per cent are butchered for meat and sent overseas to places like Belgium, France and further to Japan.
Other wild horse advocates have gone as far as camping out in -35C weather, hauling their own feed in to lure the horses out of the corals.
With a lack of manpower and funding, however, these renegade horse lovers can only save so many.
McLeod said he’s heard rumours of the next cull taking place in February, where they plan to take another 150 head from the wild population.
The best way for people to help the wild horses of Alberta is through spreading awareness and McLeod also suggests contacting local MLAs and asking them to act on the issue.
“We must keep the pressure on this government to help keep these horses protected.”
Bob Henderson, president of the Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS), said the government doesn’t usually make decisions on trapping horses until around December.
However, he’s been in close contact with the department responsible, and so far no concrete decision has been made for this coming winter.
“We hope that they don’t but if they do we’re ready to step in and do what we can to rescue those horses that they may trap,” Henderson said.
WHOAS has two programs its been using to help the wild horses from falling victim to the government’s methods of population control.
In November 2014 the government signed agreements for the programs, the first of which involves birth control
With their contraception program, WHOAS vaccinate some of the wild mares, giving them a three year period where they are infertile and can’t reproduce.
The vaccine, a PZP drug called ZonoStat H, is recognized worldwide and is used on horses across the globe, and even sometimes in Africa to control the elephant population.
McLeod warned the drug can be cancerous but Henderson said PZP is a generic term, agreeing that some forms are bad, but that the ZonoStat H version is harmless to animals.
“This contraception program is recognized throughout North America and they’re using it in Bulgaria in the Danube basin to control their horses (as well),” Henderson said.
The other agreement WHOAS signed with the province was for an adoption program.
When the government corals horses for removal, it now gives WHOAS the option of taking them in to auction off so they can avoid being butchered.
When the ESRD captured 48 horses in last year’s cull, WHOAS was able to take in 31 of them to put them on the auction block.
They were caught off guard at the time, but did their best with the resources they had and managed to save the majority of the horses.
Henderson said the adoption program has worked out well so far.
“It works absolutely fantastic. Everybody that took those horses that we gentled down last year have nothing but rave reviews about them and how well they’re doing,” he said.
In 2012, before the agreements were signed, the province captured almost 220 horses, 95 per cent of which went for slaughter.
“What we’ve been able to do is work with the government and bring forth these programs for management solutions. If you want something to work, have solutions, not just complaints.”
Both of WHOAS’ programs have been relatively effective but Henderson said the real solution is getting the status of wild horses changed.
The government considers them “stray” or “feral”, which makes them difficult to place under wildlife laws.
“If you give them a distinct designation then you could think up proper management strategies and therefor address all the concerns people have about the horses being out there.”

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