Unlike the multitude of American Kestrels we came across today, this handsome horse had no problem posing for a photo in the winds of southern Alberta.
Hit the road yesterday for a drive into the foothills with hopes of seeing some wildlife. Reality kicked in after a few hours and after seeing some Kestrels (no photos really worth posting) and a multitude of deer, I realized it was a good day but I just wasn’t going to see much for wildlife. It was however great for the soul to get out and explore a little. While out west of Sundre, I did come across a few groups of wild/feral horses; their name of course depends on your view of a divisive issue.Horses run free in a few locations in Alberta, most notably the foothills area west of Sundre northward to Rocky Mountain House and Nordegg. The horses are descendants of domesticated horses released into the foothills in the early 1900’s. Due to their origins, they are not recognized by the provincial government as wildlife; they are viewed as feral or stray horses. The government issues permits for capturing the horses and unless the horse is branded, captured horses often become pack horses, rodeo stock or are slaughtered for food. Opponents to the capture permts/program such as The Wild Horses of Alberta Society are lobbying the government to protect the horses and to recognize them as a “heritage species”. The society was formed in 2001 in response to concerns over the humane treatment of the horses as over the years some had been shot and left to die; in 2009 the shooting of pregnant mare near Sundre and subsequent investigation by the RCMP very much pushed the issue into the media. Seeing the horses yesterday was intriguing and I soon found myself thinking about some old songs by Gino Vannelli and U2 where their lyrics speak of wild horses. After watching the first group for about 5 mins, the group structure was noticeable with a charismatic stallion keeping a close eye on me as the mares went about grazing in a clearcut.
The experience of seeing the horses brought me to think about whether or not they have their place in the landscape in Alberta. Some forest companies have expressed concern their tree planting efforts are less effective as the horses eat the young trees. The government issues leases to allow cattle grazing in the foothills; what is the impact of that practice compared to that of the horses? Does the grazing of cattle truly mimic that of when Bison roamed the landscape in Alberta (as stated by SRD spokesperson Dave Ealey)? Does the impact the horses have on the land even compare to the impact from oil and gas exploration/extraction in the foothills? There are no easy answers to these questions as there are arguments for and against each of the concerns. At the end of the day the sight of horses running free in the landscape is sexy but comes at a cost to ecological integrity; it’ll be interesting to see in time how this issue plays out.