Nancyeclark's Blog

The Canadian ‘Qiyus’

… Tsilhqot’in for cayuse. Cayuse is the word for horse, or mustang, derived from the name of a now vanished tribe of natives who inhabited the present day north-west United States.

Wild horses in Canada are a species under threat. The total number of wild horses in our huge country is about 800…i did not forget a zero…that is eight hundred ! In the United States the estimate is  20 to 25,000 in the wild, possibly as many as 32,000….in Canada we are looking at a total population of 800…400 in B.C….200 in Alberta…200 on Sable Island. There is no possible way these small numbers constitute a threat to anyone or to the ranchers who complain about grazing competition with their cattle.


Wild horses in Canada exist mostly in 4 places…on Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia (Acadian horses from French blood were shipped to the island after the Acadian deportations of 1760)…In the Siffleur Wilderness Area in Alberta and in B.C. in the Chilcotin  and Brittany triangle. In our Canadian herds, as in the American mustang, there is evidence of Spanish bloodlines…dating back to the Conquistadors in the 1500’s. Genetic dilution has occurred  as horses from other sources joined herds over the years…but many mustangs here and in the states carry the genes of Spanish ancestors. There were at one time millions of horses here…the Assiniboine people had herds of mustang in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, there were horses acquired from the Shoshoni in Alberta and many thousands in B.C., nurtured and used by the Xeni Gwet’in .  By the time explorer Simon Fraser ventured through the Chilcotin two centuries ago, the horse was already there.

In the United States, an Act of Congress became law in December of 1971, signed by then President Richard Nixon, to protect the wild horses and burros of the west…it is not working out at all well for the horses just now…but at least there is something on the books to argue about. Here in Canada, there is no federal law to protect or conserve our wild horses. They must contend with provincial laws…the Grazing act in B.C.…the Stray Animals Act in Alberta (in 1993 Alberta  introduced the Horse Capture Plan which limits capture to 25 to 30 horses per year…it was up to about 2000 a decade) and the Sable Island Regulations section of the Canadian Shipping Act.

One of the biggest threats to Canadian wild horses is that they are not considered wild…they are considered feral…and not worthy of protection. They are considered an alien species by Environment Canada…alien and invasive.

A dispute over the horses of the Chilcotin has highlighted how we see and understand the concepts wild, indigenous and alien. Community members and the Xeni Gwet’in (ha-nay gwet-een) First Nations are fighting the government to classify the horses as indigenous wildlife, and they want a preserve created for their protection. The government says the  horses are feral and not due any protection under the law, and ranchers view them as competition for their cattle. Logging destroys the horses’ habitat and leaves them vulnerable to predators. (Wild horses in western Canada are found primarily in forested areas, typically pine woodlands with pockets of grass and  shrubland and sedge meadows). A typical herd is 5-10 individuals. Horse populations may increase when times are good, but high mortality rates due to starvation and predation by cougars/wolves during severe winters tend to prevent over population.

The horses’ classification as feral, and not wild, is based on Environment Canada’s definition of invasive alien species, 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."

Friends Of the Nemaiah Valley, say the horse population "is kept in check by predators and harsh winters, and they live in harmony with the existing ecosystem." But the government says horses on Crown land affect the area’s ecosystem by contributing to habitat destruction, through overgrazing and increasing competition for forage in the area.

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 theycame to North America by humans as domesticated animals.

"They are not considered wildlife under the provincial Wildlife Act, 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 supports a program to get DNA from the horses to trace their origins back to their Spanish ancestors. The Xeni Gwet’in First Nation is seeking injunctions against proposed logging and is part of a court case seeking land rights to the area. Everyone agrees that no one wants to see the entire population of horses disappear.

However…check out this story from 2008…

“Chilcotin aboriginals paid to shoot wild horses

December 6, 2008. The B.C. government paid aboriginal people in the Chilcotin to shoot wild horses for wolf bait and to round-up other wild horses for live sale, ultimately to slaughterhouses, The Vancouver Sun has learned.

The Ministry of Environment purchased the shot horses as wolf bait for a predator study related to the recovery of threatened caribou herds in the Interior, while the Ministry of Forests and Range bankrolled the live capture of horses as part of a program to reduce competition with range cattle.

News of the provincial actions is generating debate even within the aboriginal community over the management of wild horses in the Chilcotin and the need to ensure their humane treatment.

The forests ministry, through an agreement with TNG, paid the Stone band $200 a horse to catch 25 horses last winter to reduce competition with ranchers’ cattle. Up to half of the horses were sold at auction and ultimately sent to slaughterhouses, he said, and the rest were kept in the Chilcotin as saddle horses.

Environment Ministry spokesman Dan Gilmore confirmed the ministry paid members of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation of the Nemaiah Valley $500 apiece for four horses last winter.

"When it came time to consider how best to lure and capture wolves for the purposes of the mountain caribou recovery program, it was recommended that we use horseflesh," he said in a statement.

The horses were shot last winter to aid in the live capture of wolves near Quesnel as part of ministry research into threatened caribou populations. Gilmore said larger carcasses are preferred because they keep the wolves longer at one location, and that moose carcasses are not always available.

Mike Pedersen, Chilcotin forest district manager, said the horse culls are a response to ranchers’ concerns about loss of forage. "It’s a worthwhile project," he said, noting that horses also compete with moose and mule deer. "These guys [ranchers] just have to buy more hay. And in these times for those individuals, it’s extremely difficult."

Aerial surveys in the area showed that the wild horse population has increased to 442 in 2008 from 123 in 1998.”

Wow…442 horses…on how much land??? The Brittany Triangle is 155,000 hectares and the Chilcotin is around 5 million acres…it is believed that about 100 horses live in the Brittany Triangle and the other 300 over the rest of the area. In the United States we are talking about  25,000 horses on 32 million acres…with much more supposedly available under the Wild and Free Roaming Horse and Burro Act of 1971.

For those of us hectare/acre/squarefootage-ly challenged: a hectare is

  • 2.471 Acres
  • 100 Ares,
  • 10,000 square meters,
  • 4,840 square yards,
  • 107,637 square feet

The issue is not so much too many horses on too little is competition with cattle ranchers over grazing/forage. When it comes to the pocketbook…the bottom line…who do you think will win???

I have spent a lot of time online recently, trying to learn about mustangs, here and in the States…and the overwhelming truth that appears over and over, is that there are not very many wild horses left in North America and they are under constant threat, the threat of extinction, through competition with cattle ranchers grazing their animals on public land, through energy and resource development, through drought and climate change, habitat destruction, senseless killing (Parker Ridge near Sundre, Al.) and wolf bait, and most of all through their lack of financial usefulness…it is apparently only through slaughter that you can value these incredible, beautiful, tragic animals. It is this lack on their part, of not touching our pocketbooks, that has, I think, ended them with a lack of political will on the part of government, to declare them wild and worthy of protection. There is much more money and tax to be made with logging, mining, oil production, pipelines and ranchers.  Wildness is it seems a political issue…not one of nature. True, the mustang was once domesticated…500 years ago. How many generations must be foaled and nurtured  in the wild before you are, in the eyes of politicians, at least, considered truly wild??  The distinction escapes me.

There are lots of links here…check them out…google yourself silly…contact your MP and tell them how you feel…the wild horses need us…and need us now, before it is too late.

4 Comments so far
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Good Morning, I was looking up info about my mare and colt, both mustangs from the Chilcotin bc, I moved to Chilanko Forks about 2 years ago and came across a fellow who was wanting to get rid of his mare, I took her in a heart beat, she had a 8month old colt as well that i took too. I then met a gentleman from the first nations in Redstone, and he filled me in on the cayuse herds and their history. My mare was rounded up, tied to a tree, starved then sacked out to break her. Which explained alot of her behavior towards myself and my husband. I must tell you she is one hell of a strong horse!!! Her colt who is now a gelding, is just as gorgeous as his dame. SummerStarr Express is a strawberry roan, and August Express is a red roan, they change colors with the seasons, purple almost in the summer and white in the winter My name is Sherrie Myers and if you like please facebook me.

Comment by sherrie myers

Well written,lots of info
i have one of these wild mustang horses,from the Brittany triangle,he was captured by the indians,but mistreated,i am so blessed to have him..

Comment by Carol Boyd

Thank you very much. You are certainly blessed to be able to spend time with a mustang…they are incredibly special creatures…I envy you.

Comment by nancy clark

Right you are,incredible animals,love to show you some pictures sometime of my gorgeous Brittany mustang…

Comment by Carol Boyd

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