Alberta’s feral horse populations range the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains between the Sheep and Brazeau Rivers.
Albertans have always felt a strong connection to feral horses, due in part to the role that their ancestors played in settling the west. Horses served vital roles in labour in the fields, providing transportation and improving the quality of life for settlers in Alberta.
In areas with high density feral horse populations, feral horses move from the preferred habitats with high availability of forage to other areas. This creates the risk of unsustainable use and puts pressure on plant communities and other grazing animals using the landscape.
Alberta’s feral horse population is counted across 6 equine management zones: Brazeau, Nordegg, Clearwater, Sundre, Ghost River and Elbow. Minimum counts and distance surveys are conducted using helicopters for optimal maneuverability.
The Alberta government is taking action to ensure the long-term future of feral horses. The new science-based management framework was developed with the input of the Feral Horse Advisory Committee, which includes stakeholders, subject matter experts, academic researchers and key organizations that provide valuable insight into Alberta’s feral horse population.
Impact on rangelands
Alberta’s public rangelands are productive ecosystems that support many different land uses including:
- forestry and resource extraction
- feral horses
All these uses need to be managed to ensure public lands continue to provide important watershed protection, water filtration, carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, and vegetation for wildlife and livestock grazing.
Public rangelands produce a finite amount of forage. Seasonal livestock grazing on public land begins in summer to protect sensitive rangeland species in the spring during the initial part of the growing season.
Rangelands become degraded if they do not receive sufficient rest or when cumulative grazing pressure by domestic stock, wildlife and feral horses exceeds the carrying capacity of the plant communities with an area. Without sufficient rest, especially during sensitive time periods, rangeland ecosystem health can deteriorate and lead to an increase in non-native plant species that may not have as high an ecological value.
The feral horse management framework recognizes the importance of feral horses and their place on the landscape.
Management frameworks are essential to protect Alberta’s wildlife, grazing animals and biodiversity. Without a framework in place, feral horses can negatively impact wildlife, birds, fish, cattle and vegetation.
All game and livestock species who utilize our ecosystems have management plans. From trout to bighorn sheep and grizzly bears, we develop management plans to ensure the ongoing sustainability species and ecosystems in which they reside.
Feral horses are part of Alberta’s rich history. The objective of the management framework is to manage feral horse populations sustainably, while continuing to ensure wildlife and natural resources are protected.
- State of current knowledge on feral horse population dynamics and Alberta population trends
- State of current knowledge on survey methods to monitor Alberta’s feral horse populations
- State of current knowledge on feral horse impacts on rangeland ecosystems
- State of current knowledge on the relationship of feral horses and coexisting ungulates
- State of current knowledge on fertility control methods for feral horses
Provisions for the management of feral horses is regulated under the Horse Capture Regulation.
In the early 1990s, concerns about mistreatment of horses captured on public land led the Alberta government to create the Horse Capture Regulation under the Stray Animals Act. This regulation was developed to ensure humane treatment of feral horses during round-up and restricted the use of inhumane methods of capture, including the use of snares.
According to the Stray Animals Act individuals releasing animals will be charged for all costs of capturing, identifying, transporting and selling the animal, as well as any damages caused by the animal on private property.
Feral horse counts
2023 feral horse minimum count survey summary
Survey time period: January and February 2023
Equine management zones covered: Brazeau, Clearwater, Ghost River, Nordegg and Sundre
Number of horses Counted: 1,428
Minimum counts provide a baseline of horses seen in preferred habitats. These types of surveys are conducted in each individual zone as funding permits with the intent of determining the number of horses on the landscape. It should be noted that there may be more feral horses than those observed through the minimum count.
- 2013: 980
- 2014: 880
- 2015: 709
- 2016: 854
- 2017: 1,202
- 2018: 1,712
- 2019: 1,679
- 2021: 1,314
- 2022: 1,178
- 2023: 1,428
How feral horse surveys are conducted
Feral horse minimum count surveys are conducted using a helicopter for greater maneuverability. During the count, a detected group of horses are flown by 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 on the left side of the helicopter independently count and classify the animals to confirm group composition and prevent double counting. The pilot, situated in the front right seat, always manoeuvre the helicopter so that the horses will be on the left side of the aircraft if they were initially observed from the right side. 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.
Feral horses prefer grassy meadows, shrublands and newer (around 7 years old or less) cutblocks, resulting in relatively static flight paths over these areas.
The flight paths may change slightly from year to year to ensure the department accurately captures feral horses’ preferred habitat as the landscape changes over time. For example, new cutblocks are established or existing cutblocks are no longer preferred as they mature and produce less forage, fires changing habitat availability and access routes.
Flight paths are also adjusted to account for survey conditions, that is, low snow cover may require lines to be closer together to improve detectability. Large areas of recognized preferred habitat is flown in a grid pattern to cover the entire area. In areas with lower horse density, the grid pattern is not flown, and the focus is on areas preferred by feral horses.
Since 2017, monitoring in the Sundre and Ghost River zones has been supplemented with distance sampling methodology. Distance sampling is a common method used for conducting wildlife surveys and provides more statistical rigour when considering population changes across years.
Feral horse distance sampling surveys are also conducted using a helicopter. Analysis from the distance sampling method provides an estimated density and number of horses based on the number of horses observed during the distance sampling surveys. Distance sampling estimates only apply to the zones in which population sizes are sufficient for conducting distance surveys:
Ghost River and Sundre Equine Management Zones (EMZs)
These 2 zones have the largest feral horse populations. Before takeoff, Geographic Information System staff overlay randomly generated transect lines (up to 10 km long) to fly across the designated areas. Next, they remove 49% of these lines randomly, leaving 51% to be sampled.
When flying, 3 observers are assigned specific areas within their field of view to look for animals – one person monitoring 50 m on both sides of the flight transect and 2 people looking >50 m up to 2 km 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 input to computer software 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:
- 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 (PDF, 300 KB)
Adult-subadult-foal information is collected on minimum counts.
There were 1,428 horses counted during the 2023 minimum count survey:
- 1,210 adults
- 217 subadults
- 1 foal – foaling typically happens after surveys
Survey count summaries
Survey counts are conducted in designated areas in the province. Alberta’s feral horse survey count annual summaries, flight tracks and horse observation points are publicly available.
Maps and charts summarizing the annual results of Alberta’s feral horse survey counts from 2013 to 2023 may be reviewed at:
Note that no survey count was taken in 2020.
Feral Horse Advisory Committee
The committee provided valuable input into the feral horse management framework. Committee members will continue to help shape the Alberta government’s approach to feral horse management.
Read more about the Feral Horse Advisory Committee.
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