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,” said Reedman. “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 they are in decline.
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 ten 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 overgrazed Haines Creek, Brittany Lakes, and Kliyuhl Tsuh, it said.
While ranchers have historically complained that wild horses damage foraging areas used by cattle, the BC 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 over-grazed and caused hardships for cattle, but that that’s not what studies show,” said McCrory.
In the late 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.
“Those culls likely had an effect on the genetic makeup of the whole population as you saw entire herds shot to death,” he said.
McCrory also disputes the notion that wild horses have any negative impact on moose in the area. In the winter, the horses prefer grasses while the moose browse on willow.
Management of the wild horse population in recent years has included capturing and selling wild horses — possibly for meat — as recently as five years ago.
A government-sponsored moose enhancement program operated by the Tl’etinqox First Nation removed 14 wild horses and had them sold at auction.
The Xeni Gwet’in First Nation has a nurturing relationship with the horses that run free in their territory. In 2002, the band declared the Elegesi
Qiyus Wild Horse Preserve to protect them from human predation and to protect the wilderness area they inhabit.
As many as 400 horses inhabit the preserve area.
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