The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Capture of wild horses in Alberta likely to meet 10 per cent of target

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CALGARY - Alberta is likely to fall well short of its goal to reduce its wild horse population by almost 200 animals when permits expire at the end of the week.

Two licences were issued by the government to capture up to 196 feral horses in the central Alberta area around Sundre. One of the licence-holders says the actual number will probably be around 20.

The permits are in effect until March 1.

"The maximum number of feral horses that can be captured is still 196. I'm not aware of an intention to extend the capture season at this point," Carrie Sancartier, a spokeswoman for Alberta Environment, said in an email Wednesday.

"I've just caught a few so far," said Bryn Thiessen, 54, who runs Helmer Creek Ranch near Sundre and has one of the licences. "I haven't had time and I won't do a poor job for the horses' sake and everybody else's.

"I can't foresee reaching the goal given the shortened capture season and the fact that nobody else has bothered. Other guys who have trapped in the past didn't bother applying."

Thiessen said he's managed to bring in three horses so far and the other permit-holder, a friend of his, has captured a dozen.

The government says the feral horse population is continuing to balloon and numbers need to be balanced to accommodate the grazing needs of cattle and wildlife.

Alberta Environment says the number of horses in the Sundre area increased to 980 last year from 778 the year before. The department is confident about the count, which is done at the same time every year by helicopter.

The horses are descendants of domestic animals used in logging and mining operations in the early 1900s.

The plan to reduce the population has drawn the ire of animal rights activists who worry that many of the horses are destined for slaughterhouses or will die during the roundup.

RCMP said three women and two men involved in an ongoing protest were arrested Tuesday for mischief. They have been released on the promise to stay away from the wild horse capture site and are to appear in Didsbury provincial court on March 31.

"The five individuals were warned by officers a few moments prior to entering the immediate site area that they would be committing mischief were they to proceed," Sgt. Josee Valiquette wrote in a release Wednesday.

"The individuals proceeded to the site despite the warning and were subsequently arrested."

The names of the five protesters have not been released.

Thiessen has been trying to catch what he calls "problem animals" that hang out around roads. He said a few of the ones he was hoping to catch have been hit by logging and oil trucks.

Of the three he has captured so far, one is a colt and totally adoptable. The other two, a mare and a stallion are in rough shape and are being assessed.

"Wherever possible we will try and find a safe place for them. But if you send somebody a five-year-old stud or a mare and they've got five acres and a five-foot-high fence, some will stay there, some will go through it and some will go over it," he said.

"All of a sudden you've got this horse running around the community, that you can't catch, causing problems and ... potentially dangerous."

Thiessen said it's not a money-making proposition since an animal that has to be sent to slaughter is worth less than $200.

"I'm for capture not because I think it's a romantic idea or that I make money, but because it allows the most options for those horses."

There have been numerous debates over the years about the best way to deal with feral horses, Thiessen said. Ideas have included mass slaughter or sterilization, but a roundup was considered the best compromise.

Thiessen, who is also a pastor, has taken some heat for his position.

"People have a right to an opinion," he said. "But Facebook is the new stoning ... Some of the comments are ludicrous and some are quite scary."

Capture of the horses involves a portable metal corral which is set up in a feeding area and baited with hay or salt. The animals trigger a trip wire when they enter and a weighted door closes behind them. They are then loaded onto trailers.

Thiessen said the province requires the corrals be checked every 48 hours, but most ranchers check them every day.

The Alberta government last issued a capture order in 2011 and 216 horses were removed.

"It was always a good idea," Thiessen said. "I think it needs to be talked about. I think there needs to be a management plan."

Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

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