wild horses of Sable Island
Photo by Philip McLoughlin/University of Saskatchewan

The wild, wild horses of Sable Island could face extinction

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This past spring, Sable Island – the fabled crescent-shaped mass off of Halifax where wild horses roam free and shipwrecks punctuate the shoreline – officially welcomed its first visitors as a national park. The season started off slow with only around 50 people in total registered to visit, where previously the island averaged 250 visitors each year.

And numbers might be even lower in coming years as the wild horses, the main draw to the island, could possibly face extinction due to inbreeding and extreme weather, says a report published by Parks Canada.

Brought to the island in the 1760s by the British after they were seized from the Arcadians, the horses have been feral ever since and for the most part, lived without any sort of governmental intervention.

Now the new report written by Bill Freedman, a well-respected ecologist with Dalhousie University, has found that the feral horse population could rapidly decline. Rampant inbreeding has left the herd with little genetic diversity, meaning they’re at a greater risk to disease, and the weather’s harsh climate could affect the horses’ ability to find food under heavy snow or ice.

In 1960, when the herd last faced extinction, there was a huge public outcry when the federal government called for the horses to be removed from the island – in which the survivors were apparently to work on coal mines on the mainland or slaughtered for dog food. The horses remained on the island and their population has since recovered. Currently, there are more than 500 in the herd.

But for every romantic thought the horses of Sable Island conjure, there’s a scientist wishing they would be removed.

Many scientists, including biologist Ian Jones, believes that Parks Canada ought to remove the horses because they’re harmful to the ecology and despite their long history, are an invasive species.

In an interview with the CBC, he pointed out that some bird species have already been threatened by the destructive behaviour of the horses.

“Parks Canada is completely out to lunch in relation to the science,” Jones said.

“The most endangered ecosystems on the planet are remote offshore islands and the reason for the endangerment is the introduction of domestic animals onto these islands… This is just the kind of place national parks were intended to preserve.”

But Freedman disagrees.

“I also know that what little research has been done suggests that the horses aren’t the greatest threat to the ecological integrity of the place,” he said in an interview with the CBC.

And for now, it looks like Parks Canada has no intention of removing the horses either, noting that the horses are iconic and will be protected as wildlife under the Canada National Parks Act and the National Parks Wildlife Regulations.

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