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Alberta’s feral horse populations range the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains between the Sheep and Brazeau Rivers. Feral horses are believed to be descendants of abandoned or released domestic horses that once were used in logging, guiding and outfitting operations in the early 1900s.
Over the years, escaped and illegally released horses have supplemented the population of feral horses and have helped to establish the distinct populations found in Alberta today. The largest population in the province is found west of the town of Sundre.
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.
Impact on rangelands
Alberta’s public rangelands are productive ecosystems that support many different land uses including:
- forestry and resource extraction
- 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 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 distribution and size of horse populations have resulted in the need for population management programs to minimize negative effects on rangelands while also ensuring a stable population of 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.
In addition to horse captures, the department is currently reviewing other management strategies and their viability, including immunocontraceptives and adoption.
Feral horse counts
2022 feral horse minimum count survey summary
Survey time period: February and March 2022
Equine management zones covered: Brazeau, Clearwater, Elbow, Ghost River, Nordegg and Sundre
Number of horses Counted: 1178
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 as funding permits.
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.
Survey counts since 2013:
- 2013: 980
- 2014: 880
- 2015: 709
- 2016: 854
- 2017: 1202
- 2018: 1712
- 2019: 1679
- 2021: 1314
- 2022: 1178
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.
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.
For example, in the Sundre equine management zone there were 642 horses counted during the 2022 minimum count survey:
- 515 adults
- 126 subadults
- 1 foal – foaling typically happens after surveys
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 and charts summarizing the annual results of Alberta’s feral horse survey counts from 2013 to 2022 may be reviewed at:
Note that no survey count was taken in 2020.
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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