LETHBRIDGE — Past efforts to control western Alberta’s wild horses have not worked well, and the population continues to grow.
The latest strategy is to administer birth control to the mares with a dart gun, said Mark Lysine of the provincial environment department.
The contraception, which was developed in the United States, lasts up to three years. It may be preferable to a controversial annual cull, in which horses likely end up at a slaughter plant.
“If we use this vaccination, we don’t have to remove them, but the population doesn’t grow as quickly,” Lyseng told the Alberta Grazing Leaseholders Association in Leth-bridge Feb. 25.
He said the department has made attempts to count and manage the horses, and last year an aerial count of part of their territory found 713 horses.
The province and the not for profit group Wild Horses of Alberta Society (WHOAS) signed an agreement in 2014 to develop better management plans.
WHOAS provides trained teams to administer the vaccine and is involved in counting efforts as well as collecting DNA samples to learn the origin of the horses in the Sundre region. The DNA analysis is being conducted at the University of Calgary.
The feral horse advisory committee, which meets in June, comprises government and stakeholders such as WHOAS.
“There are a lot of activist groups out there and people yelling and complaining, ‘leave the horses alone,’ but they are offering no solutions to the problem,” said WHOAS president Bob Henderson.
Similar contraceptive programs have been used in Europe and the United States.
“Hopefully we will prove this is the most effective way of managing the wild horses in the west,” he said.
“We probably won’t see any results until 2017, and by that time we should start to see results with the mares.”
The herds will be monitored to see how many foals are born. The vaccinated mares continue cycling, so the stallions won’t force them out of the herd.
A target of 52 was set last year for removal by licensed horse trappers, but they captured only 48. WHOAS took some, gentled them and found them new homes.
There will be no cull this year.
More research is also needed to determine how many horses the range can support before they be-come a nuisance.
“Any good rancher knows how many animals and acres he has to deal with, and he knows what the carrying capacity of those acres is,” Henderson said.
Feral horses are not protected, and WHOAS has told the government that they should be recognized as a distinct breed with a name such as Alberta mountain horse.
“They have almost evolved into their own distinct breed, the same as the Canadian horse is recognized as a distinct breed,” he said.
“You can distinguish them from a domestic horse right away.”