Where to find wild horse herds in Canada and why they’re surprisingly controversial

Published: June 6, 2018

Wild horses of Sable Island [Photo credit: Instagram/@sableislandwildhorses]

A controversy has erupted in Alberta over the province’s decision to cull wild horses, leading to a debate about whether or not the horses are a legitimate part of Canadian wildlife.

A symposium on wild horses in North America recently met in Cochrane, Alberta, and as the CBC recently reported, many attendees are speaking out against Alberta’s management of its wild horse herds, which involves rounding them up and either selling or slaughtering them.

The province’s argument? That the horses are not truly wild, but rather are feral, having descended from horses used in mining and logging over a hundred years ago. The reasoning goes that since horses aren’t truly “wildlife,” they actually fall under the authority of the Alberta Stray Animals Act.

What many Canadians might not realize is that by some definitions, there’s no such thing as truly “wild” horses living in North America. While wild horses evolved on this continent, they went extinct over 10,000 years ago, and the horses currently roaming free are actually descended from mustangs that were introduced in the 1600s by the Spanish.

Nevertheless, after hundreds of years, many argue that the horses now here are a part of the Canadian ecosystem. Some experts also claim they’re the same species as the horses that disappeared millennia ago, meaning they’re really just a native species that has been reintroduced.

Debates over the wild horses’ place in Alberta continue, but while horses are regarded by some as pests, there are herds in Canada that are protected by law. Here are a few places where you can find protected horses living in the wild.

Sable Island, Nova Scotia

Wild horses of Sable Island
[Photo credit: Instagram/@sableislandwildhorses]

Nova Scotia’s Sable Island has its own genetically unique breed of wild horses. These small pony-like horses have been living on the island since the 1700s, and while they were once rounded up and sold, leading to near-extinction in the 1950s, they are now protected by the Canadian Government, in part due to having become a genetically unique group.

These days, there are somewhere between 400 and 550 horses on the island. Few humans live on or visit the island, which is probably a good thing, as it is against the law to “molest, interfere with, feed or otherwise have anything to do with the ponies on the Island.”

Chilcotin Plateau, British Columbia

Horses in Chilcotin Plateau
[Photo Credit: Friends of the Nemaiah Valley]

Approximately 1,000 horses are believed to live in Chilcotin Plateau in B.C.’s interior, and like the horses of Sable Island, they are quite genetically isolated. In fact, recent genetic studies have found that these horses do not seem to be descended from Spanish horses the same way most North American wild horses are. They share more in common with the Canadian Heritage Horse (which has French ancestry), and even the Yakut horse from Russia. How they ended up in the interior of B.C. is a bit of a mystery, but it’s likely they’ll remain there, as the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, which holds the title to the land the horses live on, has created a preserve for them — the only horse preserve in Western Canada.

Bronson Forest, Saskatchwan

The horses in Saskatchewan’s Bronson Forest are another group that have courted controversy in the past. The small herd was considered a nuisance by locals, and people were taking it upon themselves to round them up and sell them, or else shoot them. However, in 2009, a private members’ bill protecting the horses passed, and now the herd is free to live in peace.

 

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