Table of contents

Feral horses in Alberta

Feral horses are found along the Eastern Slopes of Alberta from north of the Sheep River up to the Brazeau River area. Currently, the highest feral horse populations are found west of the town of Sundre. The majority of these are believed to be descendants of domestic horses used in logging and guiding and outfitting operations in the early 1900s. When these horses were no longer needed, they were abandoned or released. Over the years, escaped and illegally released horses have been added to the population, creating the bands present today.

Albertans have a strong connection to feral horses due in part to their role in settling the west. These horses have been used to:

  • help with labour in the fields
  • improve quality of life in a variety of ways
  • provide a means of transportation

Release of domestic horses is illegal according to Section 16 of the Forest Reserves Regulation, part of Alberta’s Forest Reserves Act.

Impact on rangelands

Public Crown rangelands produce a finite amount of annual forage on preferred range and there are many land uses of these public areas. Uses include:

  • recreation
  • forestry and resource extraction
  • wildlife
  • livestock
  • feral horses

All of 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 animals to graze on.

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 livestock grazing is prohibited until the summer months.

Wildlife migrate throughout the year whereas feral horses stay on the same landscape year round. 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 ecological value.

Horse captures

Since the horse population has expanded in the past decade, a population management program is necessary to minimize negative effects on rangelands while also ensuring a stable population of feral horses.

Provisions for the management of feral horses by Environment and Parks is currently regulated under the Horse Capture Regulation. In addition to horse captures, the department is currently reviewing other management strategies and their viability, including immunocontraceptives and adoption.

Legislation

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

2021 feral horse minimum count survey summary

Survey time period: February 2021

Equine management zones covered: Brazeau, Clearwater, Elbow, Ghost River, Nordegg and Sundre

Number of horses Counted: 1314

Summary reference: Feral horse minimum count

Minimum counts have been conducted since 2009. Minimum counts provide a baseline of horses seen in preferred habitats. These types of surveys are conducted in each individual zone annually as funding permits.

Survey counts since 2013:

  • 2013: 980
  • 2014: 880
  • 2015: 709
  • 2016: 854
  • 2017: 1202
  • 2018: 1712
  • 2019: 1679
  • 2021: 1314

Since 2017, Sundre and Ghost River areas have been 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 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 distance surveys were conducted.

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 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.

Distance survey

Feral horse distance sampling surveys are also conducted using a helicopter. These types of surveys are conducted in the Ghost and Sundre Equine Management Zones (EMZs), the two zones with the highest feral horse populations. Before takeoff, Geographic Information System staff overlay randomly generated transect lines to fly (up to 10 km long) 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:

Population metrics

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

For example, in the Sundre area there were 763 horses counted during the 2021 minimum count survey:

  • 637 adults
  • 126 yearlings
  • 0 foal – foaling typically happens after surveys

This means that yearlings made up 17% of the total population, not including 2021 foals, with a ratio of 19.8 yearlings per 100 adults.

Survey count summaries

Survey counts are conducted annually in designated areas in the province. Alberta’s feral horse survey count annual summaries, flight tracks and horse observation points are publicly available.

Maps

The following maps and charts summarize the annual results of Alberta's feral horse survey counts from 2013 to 2021.

Feral Horse Advisory Committee

The committee has been re-established and will provide expert advice to improve feral horse management in Alberta.

Read more about the Feral Horse Advisory Committee

 

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