Chilcotin wild horses un­der as­sess­ment

Province, Tsil­hqot’in plan to count free-range equines to see if they cre­ate wildlife con­flict

The Province - - NEWS - RANDY SHORE [email protected]­media.com

The province is plan­ning a full count and as­sess­ment of the free-rang­ing wild horses of the Chilcotin to de­ter­mine what im­pact they have on the health of moose and other wildlife in the area.

The Min­istry of Forests, Lands, Nat­u­ral Re­sources and Ru­ral Devel­op­ment and the Tsil­hqot’in Na­tional Gov­ern­ment are seek­ing a con­trac­tor to con­duct an ae­rial count of the wild horses in the Chilcotin, an area of more than 30,000 square kilo­me­tres.

“This project is a first step in de­liv­er­ing on a com­mit­ment to moose co-man­age­ment agree­ment with the Tsilqot’in Na­tion,” said Dave Reed­man, a pro­vin­cial re­source man­ager for the Chilcotin.

As many as 1,000 feral horses run free across the re­gion, in­clud­ing a ge­net­i­cally dis­tinct group de­scended from the Cana­dian horse blood­lines of New France and a rare Siberian breed.

“This sur­vey will be the first es­ti­mate of free-range horses abun­dance and dis­tri­bu­tion across the en­tire Chilcotin,” he said. “It’s in­tended to in­form fu­ture man­age­ment de­ci­sions for wildlife and range use.”

The new sur­vey will be­gin to an­swer long-stand­ing ques­tions about the ef­fect that wild horses have on wildlife and live­stock.

“The horses tend to oc­cupy the same meadow com­plexes that moose fre­quent in the win­ter,” Reed­man said. “Right now, we don’t re­ally know if there is com­pe­ti­tion there or if they are push­ing the moose out.”

Many Tsilqot’in peo­ple in the re­gion rely on hunt­ing for food, but have had to stop hunt­ing moose be­cause the moose are in de­cline. Hun­dreds of wild horses run free in the Chicotin, some with blood­lines that go back cen­turies.

Wild horses also ap­pear to share range with cari­bou in the Chilcotin dur­ing the win­ter.

The sur­vey will be con­ducted by fixed wing plane by two crews si­mul­ta­ne­ously in the North and South Chilcotin to avoid over­lap. The sur­vey will also col­lect in­for­ma­tion on lo­ca­tion, group size, the pro­por­tion of adults and foals and the ecosys­tem type where the horses are sighted.

The wild horse pop­u­la­tion in the re­gion has not been fully as­sessed in 10 years. A 2009 count found roughly 800 wild horses, al­most evenly split be­tween the North and South search ar­eas.

Ac­cord­ing to that re­port wild horses present a “ma­jor chal­lenge to sus­tain­able range man­age­ment in the Chilcotin.” The com­bi­na­tion of feral horses and live­stock such as cat­tle have over­grazed Haines Creek, Brit­tany Lakes, and Kliyuhl Tsuh, it said.

While ranch­ers his­tor­i­cally have com­plained that wild horses dam­age for­ag­ing ar­eas used by cat­tle, the B.C. Cat­tle­men’s As­so­ci­a­tion says only a small num­ber of ranches are af­fected.

About 1,000 wild horses in­habit the Chilcotin to­day, down from the tens of thou­sands that lived on the In­te­rior grass­lands of B.C. his­tor­i­cally, said in­de­pen­dent bi­ol­o­gist Wayne McCrory.

The horses are a mix of blood­lines, in­clud­ing branded and hal­ter-broke horses owned by First Na­tions peo­ple and much older lines of wild horses.

McCrory’s field work found groups in the Brit­tany Tri­an­gle, be­tween the Chilko and Taseko Rivers, that are a ge­net­i­cally dis­tinct mix of the Cana­dian horse — de­scended from horses shipped to New France by King Louis XIV in the 17th cen­tury — and the Yakut, a small­ish breed from eastern Siberia.

“In set­tled ar­eas, like the Ne­ma­iah Val­ley, you get a melt­ing pot of blood­lines,” he said. He has re­cently col­lected hair sam­ples for anal­y­sis from across the en­tire re­gion that will bring greater clar­ity to the makeup of other re­mote and ge­net­i­cally iso­lated groups.

An­nual he­li­copter counts per­formed by the Friends of the Ne­ma­iah Val­ley sug­gest that wild horse num­bers are stable, un­like the fast pop­u­la­tion growth seen in the West­ern United States.

“There hasn’t been a bounty hunt or cull for a long time,” said McCrory, who fears the gov­ern­ment sur­vey could be a first step to­ward a cull.

“These horses don’t have any le­gal pro­tec­tion,” he said. “They are not clas­si­fied as wildlife and you couldn’t clas­sify them as live­stock, but they’ve been out there since be­fore the (Euro­pean set­tlers) came.”

Un­til 1946, wild horses in Chilcotin were shot in the hun­dreds ev­ery year for a gov­ern­ment bounty of $3 per mare and $5 per stal­lion, driven by the be­lief that the horse com­peted for for­age with live­stock.

“Rhetoric be­hind pre­vi­ous wild horse culls was al­ways that the horses over­grazed and caused hard­ships for cat­tle, but that that’s not what stud­ies show,” McCrory said.

In the lat ’80s, around 180 wild horses were rounded up and sold for meat or just shot in a gov­ern­ment-sanc­tioned cull that re­duced their to­tal pop­u­la­tion by 20 per cent. In 2008, a cull re­moved an­other 25 horses, some of which were slaugh­tered.

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