Frequently asked questions about feral horses

What are feral horses?

Alberta’s free-ranging horses are descended from once domesticated horses, and as such are considered feral animals as opposed to true native wildlife.

In the early twentieth century, horses were used in logging and mining operations – and when those operations stopped, many of the horses were turned loose. Throughout the years, illegally released and escaped horses have joined these herds to make the current feral population.

Why do we need to manage them?

The sustainable use of the landscape is the first priority on Alberta public lands, which means that all users of the landscape need to be managed. Forest harvest, livestock grazing, and wildlife populations are all managed at sustainable levels through the use of permits and licences. To promote balance on the landscape proactive management of feral horses is used to limit potential adverse effects.

What is the purpose of the Feral Horse Capture Program?

The Horse Capture Program legislated under the Stray Animals Act helps to protect these horses and their long-term survival while also balancing the protection of Alberta’s public and natural resources from the impacts of these animals. It ensures humane treatment in capturing them by specifying only round-up and roping methods be used, while prohibiting snare traps. Sustainable feral horse populations can exist on our lands – but we need to balance the needs of all users.

How long has the program been in place?

Legislation was passed in 1993 and the existing program was implemented shortly thereafter. An earlier permit system was in effect from 1962 to 1972 when about 2000 horses were removed over the span of the ten years. Some round-ups were done as far back as the 1950's.

Is the horse population growing?

Yes. Annual reproduction, low rates of removal along with the addition of a number of escaped and illegally released horses have notably increased the population and distribution area of feral horses. There has been an obvious increase in the number of horses counted in annual surveys since 2006.

Is there an ideal number of horses Alberta would like to see in the wild?

It is difficult to pin-point an exact number that we would like to see roaming on the landscape. We are working with stakeholders to identify an ideal limit and have identified several components that need to be taken into account, such as, resource availability, plant community, wildlife populations, anticipated changes in preferred habitat, and the minimum viable populations. However, we do know that without management feral horse population growth will have unsustainable impacts on the land.

What impact do feral horses have on Alberta grasslands?

Grasslands are an incredibly important forage and habitat resource for a variety of wildlife within Alberta. They provide essential forage resources for wildlife such as elk and deer, as well as for domestic livestock.. These grasslands also provide habitat for the majority of Alberta’s species at risk, animals whose habitat demands were shaped by a historical disturbance regime that was dominated by bison grazing and fire disturbance.

The eastern slopes grasslands evolved under a history of grazing, and as such native grasses and wildflower species require some grazing to maintain optimum health and ecosystem function – a result of the co-evolution of these species with bison and other large herbivores. Bison and elk are both migratory species, and their historical migratory patterns shaped the grazing tolerance of plant species in the eastern slopes. The vegetation in certain areas is more tolerant of grazing at particular times of year and is less tolerant at other times of the year due to this historic grazing pattern. Foothills grassland species are particularly sensitive to spring grazing as they are still growing. For this reason we prohibit livestock grazing until the summer months.

Alberta’s feral horse populations stay on the same landscape year around, which can negatively impact native species as they are faced with constant grazing pressure during periods of grazing intolerance. This has a negative impact on overall ecosystem function as grasslands deteriorate in health, and results in an increase in the amount of non-native species that may not have as high ecological value.

Why can’t their natural predators regulate the numbers?

The research that has been done shows that natural predation on feral horses may be limited. The main predators are wolves and cougars. Harsh winters can impact some portions of the population but this will vary from year to year. With limited natural controls on their population, feral horse populations can quickly grow too large for the landscape to support.

If the population was allowed to grow with only natural checks we would likely see detrimental changes to native ecosystems.

Why aren’t contraceptives being used to control population numbers?

A contraception pilot program led by the Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS) that involves darting mares from a distance, and using the PZP (Porcine Zona Pellucida) vaccine has begun. The project is being undertaken with the support of a local veterinarian, and all individuals involved in darting have taken training in vaccine administration at a site in Montana. This study is being piloted in portions of the Sundre zone to see its effectiveness on slowing growth rate. If the pilot is successful at controlling the population in this area it could be considered for other parts of the designated area.

What happens to the horses once they are captured?

The goal for captured horses is to find new homes through adoption programs administered by independent organizations. Specifically, Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS) takes the majority of the horses from the round-up, gentles them, and offers them to the public to be functional members of a ranching operations or pets.

What about removing cattle from this area?

Ecosystem health and protection of the resource from feral horse overgrazing is a key factor in driving the need to manage the populations. Even if all domestic cattle were removed from the Forest Reserve, the horse population is growing quickly and eventually will have an ecological impact on the forage resource. Properly managed grazing by cattle does not have a detrimental impact on the range. Cattle are only on the landscape for a predetermined amount of the year allowing the vegetation sufficient rest, unlike the horses which are on the landscape year round.

What is a feral horse round-up?

To manage the feral horse populations, experienced horse wranglers, under a license form the government, round-up some of these horses. Licences, screenings, and many restrictions are used to protect the health and safety of the animals.

What are the restrictions on round-up?

  • Round-up must be done humanely – this means no snares, guns or other weapons, or anything else that could hurt the horses.
  • Typically, baited corrals are used. Food or other bait lures horses into the corral, and the gate shuts once the animals are inside.
  • Licence holders must check their corrals and make sure there is enough food and water on a regular basis.
  • The Stray Animals Act protects the welfare of the horses during the round-up and in transport after.

Where can I find more information on feral horses?

Below is a short list of references that pertain to feral horses. This list may be updated from time to time, and further information may be found at Government of Alberta and University libraries.

Garrott, R.A. and L. Taylor. 1990. Dynamics of a feral horse population in Montana. J. Wildl. Manage. 54(4): 606-612.

Garrott, R.A., T.C. Eagle and E.D. Plotka. 1991. Age-specific reproduction in feral horses. Can. J. Zool. 69:738-743.

Mayes, E. and P. Duncan. 1986. Temporal patterns of feeding behaviour in free-ranging horses. Behaviour. 96(1): 105-129.

Rogers, G.M. 1991. Kaimanawa feral horses and their environmental impacts. New Zealand Journal of Ecology. 15(1): 49-64.

Salter, R.E. 1978. Ecology of feral horses in Western Alberta. Masters Thesis. Department of Animal Science, University of Alberta.

Salter, R.E. 1978. Distribution, ecology and management of free roaming horses in Alberta. Alberta Energy and Natural Resources, Alberta Forest Service. ENR Report No. 79.

Salter, R.E. 1979. Biogeography and habitat-use behaviour of feral horses in Western and Northern Canada. Department of Animal Science, University of Alberta, Edmonton. Paper presented at Symposium on the Ecology and Behaviour of Feral Equids, 6-8 September 1979, Laramie, Wyoming.

Salter, R.E. and R.J. Hudson, 1978. Distribution and Management of Feral Horses in Western Canada. Rangeman's Journal. Vol. 5, No. 6. December 1978. pp. 190-192.

Salter, R.E. and R.J. Hudson, 1978. Habitat utilization by feral horses in Western Alberta. Naturaliste can., 105: 309-321.

Storrar, J.A., R.J. Hudson and R.E. Salter, 1977. Habitat use behaviour of feral horse and spatial relationships with moose in central British Columbia. Syesis, 10: 39-44.

Wolfe, M.L., C.E. Legrande and R. MacMullen. 1989. Reproductive rates of feral horses and burrows. J. Wildl. Manage. 53(4): 916-924.