SUNDRE, Alta. — Bob Henderson's love affair with wild horses began almost 50 years ago and he's become a passionate advocate for the ponies that roam in the Rocky Mountain foothills of west-central Alberta.
"I was in the woods and this black stallion comes charging through the trees at me. He snorted and blew — and that was it," Henderson recalled recently at a barn and corral operated by the Wild Horses of Alberta Society near Sundre.
"I fell in love with those horses and I've worked hard just to become a voice for them."
Three wild mares staff were trying to "gentle down" so the animals could be adopted are in the corral. One is pregnant.
"When they're brought in for the first time, except for maybe seeing humans out in the bush, they've had no contact with humans," Henderson said. "We vet the people who adopt our horses, so the homes they go to are ones where they're going to be appreciated and loved."
Later, on a drive along a logging road, a stallion and three mares are seen pawing the snow to uncover grass. They barely move, even though humans are a few metres away.
"You seldom see a sick one. Those don't usually survive," Henderson said.
"I think we can convince the government that these horses have a value, an esthetic value for tourism as we want to diversify our economy."
Alberta Environment and Parks says 1,673 feral horses were counted in the Alberta foothills as of last February.
The horses, around since the early 1800s, are descended from escaped or released domestic stock used for ranching, logging and mining operations.
Alberta has managed their population by trapping and culling since the 1950s. Horses have been sold at auctions and, if they weren't adopted, often sent to slaughter.
A five-year pilot program in which mares were injected with a contraceptive vaccine good for three years ended Nov. 30.
Henderson would like to see the program expanded as there were a limited number of volunteers available to administer the vaccine. He feels the program would be better conducted by a university with assistance from the government.
The best solution to save the horses, he suggests, is to ensure they have protected status.
"There's no way that these beautiful, wild animals should be culled and sent for slaughter," Henderson said.
"There should be legislation enacted that gives them a distinct identity. Sending them for slaughter is no longer socially acceptable."
An Alberta Environment official said the province continues to monitor the population, which continues to rise.
"The number of horses has been growing at an average of just under 20 per cent per year," said press secretary Jess Sinclair.
Sinclair said the population has to be kept in check.
"High feral horse populations can have both ecological and economic impacts by causing damage to landscapes, plant species and the habitats of other animals."
Vivian Pharis from the Alberta Wilderness Association said the horses are not a wildlife species and compete with deer, elk, moose and mountain sheep for food.
"The real conflict is over winter range. So if there's a conflict between the feral horses and the wild, our direction is toward protection for the wild species," she said.
Pharis, who is a member of an advisory committee on the horses, doesn't want them eliminated, but doesn't see any other alternatives than what is already happening — periodic roundups and support for the contraceptive program.
"I would rather see a combination of things: finding homes for some of them and ... a more rigorous contraceptive program combined with a capture-and-slaughter program."
Pharis said their growing numbers show they don't require government protection.
"The feral horse is doing extremely well on our eastern slopes whereas our native populations of elk and moose, particularly, are shifting out ... onto the farmlands. And, along with them, have gone the predators," she said.
"The wild horse is now holding the fort ... and doing very well."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 28, 2019.
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Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press