2019 feral horse survey count summary

Survey time period: February 2019

Horse capture areas covered: Brazeau, Clearwater, Elbow, Ghost River, Nordegg and Sundre

Number of horses Counted: 1679

Summary reference: 2019 Feral Horse Total Minimum Count Summary

Alberta’s 2019 feral horse surveys are complete. The Government of Alberta completed the majority of the feral horse counts over the first three weeks of February, excluding the Elbow area flown at the beginning of January and the Ghost area at the beginning of March. Surveys were completed during this time as conditions were suitable with adequate snow cover to see feral horses.

A total of 1679 individual feral horses (including adults, sub-adults/yearlings, and foals) were observed during the minimum counts. Minimum counts are a method of surveying that represents the absolute minimum number of feral horses on the landscape. The above reference provides a summary of the minimum counts.

For the third consecutive year, Sundre and Ghost areas were surveyed using both total minimum count and distance sampling methodologies. Distance sampling is a common method used for conducting wildlife surveys and provides more statistical rigour when considering population changes across years. Analysis from this method provides an estimated number of horses and density in each of the areas based on the number of horses observed during the flight.

How feral horse surveys are conducted

Minimum counts

Feral horse minimum count surveys are conducted using a helicopter for greater maneuverability. During the count, a detected group of horses are circled until the observers can completely count the number of horses in the group. This total number is then divided up into adults, yearlings and foals.

Two observers independently count and classify the animals to confirm group composition and prevent double counting. GPS points and pictures are taken of each group to support classification.

If the observers are unsure if a horse is a yearling or a small adult, it is classified as an adult to minimize the risk of overestimating the number of yearlings.

The flight paths may change slightly from year to year to ensure the department accurately captures feral horse land use. In low-density areas, where a grid pattern is not flown, the focus is on areas preferred by feral horses.

Additionally, flight paths may change as new cutblocks are established or when mature cutblocks are no longer preferred, (once they regenerate and produce less forage). Feral horses prefer grassy meadows and shrublands, which provide a more consistent supply of forage, resulting in static flight paths over these areas.

Distance survey

Feral horse distance sampling surveys are also conducted using a helicopter. Before takeoff, GIS staff overlay planned lines to fly (2 to 10 kilometres long) on the designated areas. Next, they remove 49% of these lines randomly, leaving 51% to be sampled.

When flying, three observers are assigned specific areas within their field of view to look for animals (50 metres on either side of flight transect or >50 metres to 2 kilometres on either side of the transect line).

GPS points are taken on the flight transect at the moment when animals are detected and directly above the observed centre of the group. These points are used to create a detection function. A detection function provides an estimate of the number of animals and density on the landscape by using:

  • number of animals detected
  • distance to the animal when spotted
  • number of animals within each group

The number of animals per group is important as it gives an actual estimate of the number of animals within an area with confidence intervals, which are used to determine if there are significant changes in the population.

For more information on distance sampling methodology, see the following resources:

Buckland, S.T., Anderson D.R., Burnham, K.P., Laake, J.L., Borchers, D.L., and Thomas, L. (2001). Introduction to Distance Sampling, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Thomas, L., Buckland, S.T., Rextad, E.A., Laake, J.L., Strindberg, S., Hedley, S.L., Bishop, J.R.B., Marques, T.A., and Burnham, K.P. (2010). Distance software: design and analysis of distance sampling surveys for estimating population size, Journal of Applied Ecology 47, 5-14.

Population metrics

In both methodologies, adult-yearling-foal information is collected.

For example, in the Sundre area there were 981 horses counted:

  • 807 adults
  • 173 yearlings
  • 1 foal (foaling typically happens after surveys)

This means that yearlings made up 18% of the total population (not including 2019 foals) with a ratio of 22 yearlings per 100 adults.

Current and past survey count summaries

Follow the links below to review annual summaries, 2019 horse points, and 2019 flight tracks of Alberta’s feral horse survey counts. Survey counts are conducted annually in designated areas in the province.

The survey counts can be found on the Open Government Portal at:


The following maps and charts summarize the annual results of Alberta's feral horse survey counts from 2013 to 2019.

2019 feral horse flight tracks and points spatial file

To view the current minimum feral horse count points and flight tracking spatial data, visit the GeoDiscover Portal at: