|Photo: Patrice Halley
Are They Really Wild?
Do the horses of the Nemaiah Valley
merit protection? The answer may hinge on a definition.
Story by Jackie Wallace
Defining what it means to be Canadian has become increasingly complex in recent years. But
Canada’s melting-pot identity does not just apply to its human population. Throughout history,
a variety of foreign plant and animal species have landed on Canadian soil through exploration
and trade. Some of these alien species have existed here for generations, yet are considered
invasive members of the ecosystems they live in. In the Brittany Triangle region of British
Columbia, members of the community and the government are confronting this issue and facing
the question, when is a species considered indigenous?
A dispute over the protection of horses in the Brittany Triangle has brought the question
to the forefront. Members of the community and the Xeni Gwet’in (ha-nay gwet-een) First Nations
are fighting to have the government classify the region’s horses as indigenous wildlife,
in order to create a preserve for their protection. The government says the area’s horses
are feral and therefore not due any protection under the law.
The Friends of the Nemaiah
Valley (FONV), a group whose aim is to protect the horses, sees two threats to the
animals: ranchers, who view them as competition for their cattle’s forage, and logging,
which the FONV says destroys the horses’ habitat and leaves them vulnerable to predators.
The horses’ classification as feral, rather than wild, is based on Environment Canada’s
definition of invasive alien species, as well as practices under the Forest and Range Protection
Act of the province’s Ministry of Forests. The horses are considered invasive by Environment
Canada’s definition, which states: "Alien species become invasive when they establish
and spread in the new environment, and threaten the native species, the environment, the
economy, or some aspect of society."
According to David Williams, executive director and president of FONV, the horse population
in the region "is kept in check by predators and harsh winters, and they live in harmony
with the existing ecosystem." But Glen Davidson, manager of the area’s Nunsti Provincial
Park, says, "Horses on Crown land have been a problem for years." Davidson says
the horses affect the area’s ecosystem by contributing to habitat destruction, through overgrazing
and increasing competition for forage in the area. He also questions whether "these
horses are part of the ecosystem, or are they let loose by ranchers who don’t want to feed
them over the winter?"
The federal Species At Risk Act defines a wild animal as one "that is wild by nature
and is either native to Canada or has extended its range without human intervention and has
been present in Canada for 50 years." By these terms, the issue doesn’t lie with how
long the horses have been in the area, but rather that they were brought to North America
by humans as domesticated animals.
"They are not considered wildlife under the provincial Wildlife Act, whether they
are under the care of humans or free-living," Davidson says. Williams counters: "There
is evidence to support that these horses are descendants of the original Spanish stock. The
majority of them were born in the wild and live and behave as wild animals."
FONV is currently supporting a program to obtain DNA from the horses in order to try to
trace their origins to their Spanish ancestors. The Xeni Gwet’in First Nations government
is seeking injunctions against proposed logging and is involved in a court case seeking land
rights to the area. Despite conflicting views on the issues, both sides can agree that no
one wants to see the entire population of horses disappear from the area.