|Photo: Patrice Halley
How to rescue a wild horse
A comparison of American and Canadian policies
Story by Chris Mason
The story behind the battle to protect wild horses in the United States is filled with the
drama and emotion typical of Wild West legends — except this tale begins more recently,
long past the age of swinging saloon doors and cowboy shoot-‘em-ups. This one starts
|ESTIMATED WILD HORSE POPULATIONS
British Columbia: 400
Nova Scotia (Sable Island): 200
United States: 32,290
Velma Johnston, later to become known as Wild Horse Annie, was driving her car to work
one morning in Nevada when a truck pulling a horse trailer cut in front of her. The blood
streaming from the trailer shocked Johnston, as did the sight of the overcrowded, nearly
dead horses that piled off the vehicle after she followed the truck to a horse-rendering
What she saw compelled Johnston to fight to protect wild horses. A series of small victories
led to the U.S. government passing a law in 1959 that restricted the trapping and poisoning
of the horses. The law quickly became known as the Wild Horse Annie Act. It evolved into
the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act, which recognized the historic value of wild horses in
the West and protected them on public lands.
"Americans cherish our wild horses because they represent a great part of our history," says
Karen Sussman, president of the U.S.-based International Society for the Protection of Mustangs
and Burros (ISPMB).
The tale in Canada is less dramatic, and, in the eyes of wild-horse enthusiasts, less successful.
Associations have formed slowly to push the government toward protecting wild horses from
ranchers, poachers and hunters. Some were formed decades ago, others as recently as 2002.
"We didn’t have a Wild Horse Annie here," says David Williams, executive
director and president of the Friends of the Nemaiah Valley, in B.C. "People in the
U.S. realized how fast their frontier character was disappearing and that the horse was a
last symbol they could save."
In the U.S., lobbying on behalf of wild horses is led by the ISPMB. Government protection
is led by the Bureau of Land Management at the federal level.
In Canada, a series of associations and societies dot the map in British Columbia, Alberta
and Nova Scotia; no single organization oversees wild horses from coast to coast. Likewise,
protection of the animals is a provincial matter, with the exception of the federally owned Sable
Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, where about 200 wild horses roam.
In the absence of one unified set of regulations, in Canada wild horses fall under the
jurisdiction of the Grazing Act in British Columbia, the Stray Animals Act in Alberta and
the Sable Island Regulations section of the Canadian Shipping Act on Sable Island.
In 1993, Alberta introduced the Horse Capture Plan, which regulates the capture of wild,
or feral, horses. Between 25 and 35 horses are captured each year, whereas in the decade
from 1962 to 1972 about 2,000 horses were captured in Alberta.
Bob Henderson, president of the Wild Horses of Alberta Society, says his organization has
stopped lobbying the federal government because they’ve been told the horses fall outside
that jurisdiction. "Although we would like to see all free-roaming horses in Canada
offered the same protection as the Sable Island horses, we can only hope that we can succeed
here in Alberta," Henderson says. "Maybe in doing that we can influence other provincial
governments to do the same."
|THE SABLE ISLAND DIFFERENCE
Sable Island has been an anomaly for wild-horse enthusiasts for over four decades.
On this island reserve off the coast of Nova Scotia, unlike in the rest of Canada,
protecting the animals is a federal responsibility. So there was concern for the 200
or so horses on the island when it became known in July 2004 that the federal government
was considering closing the island’s monitoring station. It is the only permanently
staffed facility on the island, and closing it would have ended 200 years of continuous
human presence there.
Instead, on Jan. 31, 2005, the federal government announced that it was entering
into an agreement with the Nova Scotia government to keep the station open.
“The federal government, along with the province of Nova Scotia, agrees that it is
in the best interests of Canadians to ensure that Sable Island, with its special history
and unique scientific and ecological value, is preserved for generations to come,” federal
Minister of the Environment Stéphane Dion said in a statement. “We believe the best
way to achieve this is by maintaining a human presence on the island.”
According to the Sable Island Green Horse Society, it costs about a million dollars
annually to operate the station. The federal-provincial agreement will cover $500,000
in expenses until a permanent agreement can be reached.