Sunday, February 11, 2007

Alberta's wild horses in danger from human predators

Bob Remington, CanWest News Service; Calgary Herald

Published: Sunday, February 11, 2007

SUNDRE, Alta. -The killing grounds extend for 1 kilometres along the top of Parker Ridge, a rugged landscape 40 kilometres west of Sundre where grizzlies, wolf and cougars prowl.

Sixteen wild horses have died here since 2004, but not in the jaws of predators. The horses have been shot by a human enemy, their carcasses left to rot and be scavenged. For one horse, the bullet entered its withers, just behind the neck, causing instant paralysis and an agonizing death. Its slowly escaping body heat melted the snow around it, leaving a perfect impression of the horse in the frozen ground. Another, a foal, was dragged by the killer and placed alongside its dead mother.

The horses' bones are still visible through the snow, lying just off a logging and oil service road that winds through this untamed country about 130 kilometres northwest of Calgary.

There are not many wild horses left in Alberta, and some say those on Parker Ridge are part of the last truly wild herds in the province. Except for one stallion so elusive it's called Ghost, the horses on Parker Ridge are wary, but curious.

When approached, they stop pawing through the snow for grass and watch intently. In winter, they prefer open meadows, avoiding the protection of the trees because the sound of snow falling through branches obstructs their hearing. With no young to watch this time of year, and with the stallions quiet after their summer battles for mares, many of the horses will allow humans to come within 50 metres before running off.

They would have been easy prey.

The latest to be slaughtered were two adults and two seven-month-old foals found Jan 23. Bob Henderson was able to identify them by the markings on their heads, which had not yet been ravaged by eagles and wolves.

"There was still skin on the faces. My reaction was real hurt. Anger. Being a cop all those years, I'm able to turn it off. But my wife, she just cried for the longest time."

Henderson, a retired, 26-year veteran of the Calgary Police Service, knows these horses better than anyone. He first saw Sundre's wild horses in 1972 while on a hunting trip.

"They just awed the hell out of me. I knew then what it meant to be free."

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