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Wild horses are a 'returned native species' worthy of protection

Updated: Jan 19

Horses evolved in North America.

OPINION: Canada’s last wild horses must be protected / By WAYNE MCCRORY

SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL / Published: December 10, 2023


Wayne McCrory is a biologist in British Columbia and author of the new book 'The Wild Horses of the Chilcotin: Their History and Future.'

Once, tens of thousands of wild horses thundered across the vast Canadian Prairies, interior bunchgrass valleys, and secret canyons of our western mountains. As a research biologist who has studied the ecology and genetics of wild horses in British Columbia and wild horse management in Alberta, it always surprises me so few Canadians know that fewer than 5,000 remain across our huge country.

Their history since early colonial times has been one of gruesome persecution and government-sanctioned bounty hunts. Only in a very few places do they have any degree of protection.

B.C. and Alberta have most of Canada’s remaining wild horses, yet none are protected by provincial or national laws. About 35 are protected under provincial law in Saskatchewan’s Bronson Forest. Roughly 500 are protected as a “naturalized (not invasive) species” in Sable Island National Park Reserve off the coast of Nova Scotia. About a quarter of B.C.’s Chilcotin horses are protected in a large preserve created by the Xeni Gwet’in/Tsilhqot’in Nation and their governance, but the preserve is not officially recognized by provincial or federal governments. And none are protected in Alberta’s foothills.

Once settlers began to occupy the grassland ecosystems, free-roaming horses were subjected to more than a century of cruel bounty hunts and eradication programs by cattle ranchers and government range managers. They claimed the horses were overpopulating and ruining the range.

In 1896, B.C.’s colonial government passed an Act for the Eradication of Wild Horses. Bounty hunters, called mustangers, only had to deliver the scalps between the ears or severed testicles to get their reward. Many of these horses actually belonged to the Indigenous “Horse Nations” who brought them into the grasslands in the 1600s.

I grew up in B.C.’s Interior and, while I was enamoured by cowboy stories, I was also indoctrinated early on that wild, or feral, horses were bad for ecosystems. This was reinforced when, as a young biologist, I worked in the Galapagos Islands and experienced the destruction that feral animals such as goats, introduced to the islands by early whalers, caused to the sensitive habitats of many rare and unique species.

Two decades ago, when I was hired to do a grizzly bear study for a conservation group and the Xeni Gwet’in Nation in the remote Brittany Triangle region in B.C.’s west Chilcotin, I finally got to see my first wild horses. As an ecologist, my initial reaction to the horses was one of dismay. I thought the range had already been rid of these alien pests. However, as our study progressed, I saw no evidence of wild horses overpopulating or depleting these grassland habitats.

The deeper I peeled back the layers in my research on wild horses, the more I learned that the century-long claims by the cattle industry of the horses being a recently introduced 'alien species' were simply not true. Rather, it was a classic example of scapegoating wild horses to hide the fact that historical documents and range studies showed it was largely their own cattle to blame for the degradation of interior bunchgrass ecosystems.

The other important thing I learned -- from Xeni Gwet’in knowledge keepers -- was that the horse has been a revered, integral part of their lifeways for many centuries and a rich part of their cultural heritage as a horse nation. They also considered them a special animal, part of the ecosystem.

It’s important to know that the horse of today, Equus caballus, evolved in North America. Fossil bones of two species of late-Pleistocene horses from the last interglacial have even been found in the B.C. Interior grasslands not too far from the Chilcotin. Some scientists believe that wild horses should be considered a returned native species.

The Yukon horse, a forebear of today’s modern horse, went extinct on our continent 5,000 years ago but, after crossing the Siberian land bridge, survived in Eurasia where it was domesticated. After a prolonged absence, it was first returned to its originating continent by Spanish conquistadores in the early 1500s, and later by other European explorers. The early dispersion of horses across North America was facilitated largely by Indigenous societies via their widespread trade networks.

Thanks to Indigenous People's trading networks, by the mid-1600s horses had re-established themselves in healthy predator-prey ecosystems across their North American birthplace.

Only about 1,600 wild horses survive in Alberta’s Rocky Mountain foothills west of Sundre, where the century-long war against wild horses continues with periodic and controversial culls. The 1,200 that lived on the shortgrass prairies at Canadian Forces Base Suffield in Southern Alberta were “removed” in 1994, based on exaggerated claims of range damage.

As with the west Chilcotin wild horse bounty hunts, Alberta’s “wildies” continue to be unfairly scapegoated. Wild horses have always been an easy target because they have been wrongly classified as livestock and come under the Stray Animals Act in spite of their proven ancestry that goes back a very long time.

Genetic studies by renowned geneticist Dr. Gus Cothran and myself found that most of the west Chilcotin horses still bear ancestral Spanish Iberian bloodlines, while the isolated population of horses in the Brittany Triangle originated primarily from the Canadian horse (our national horse) first brought to Quebec from France in 1665, along with bloodlines from the Russian Yakut horse that lives north of the Arctic Circle.

Painstaking, evidence-based research proves that both the Alberta Foothills and B.C. Chilcotin wild horses no longer deserve to be treated as recently escaped domestic “alien” livestock that don’t belong on the land.

Instead, they are a global equine treasure and a rich part of our heritage that deserve full legislated protection. The Tsilhqot’in have shown us the way with their large wild horse preserve, as have Parks Canada for its protection of Sable Island horses, and the Saskatchewan government for its protection of Bronson Forest horses.

It is time for Canadians to speak up and demand protection of our remaining wild horses in British Columbia and Alberta. They face an uncertain future unless strong federal and provincial laws are passed to protect them as an iconic heritage species for both Indigenous and settler cultures.


1 Comment

May 27

Well written. I agree that the wild horses need to stay, and need our help!

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