COLUMNS: Wild horses in the Chilcotin, or are they just feral?

One of dad’s 150 Mile Store employees was the wife of one of the wild horse hunters Dan Weir hired to “rid” the Chilcotin of its surplus.

When we were growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s, one of dad’s 150 Mile Store employees was the wife of one of the wild horse hunters Dan Weir hired to “rid” the Chilcotin of its surplus or surfeit of horses running wild.

As I remember, he said he was responsible for removing 4,000 horses from the range. No one should quote this number, but this book does reference government records, saying he killed 400 in one year and that he hunted them during the 1930s and 40s.

It seems they were competing with cattle for precious winter and spring pasture.

They still are, in some respects and in some areas of the region.

This story is somewhat about the resettlement of the region by Europeans who came for the fur trade and later the goldminers then ranching settlers.

Two friends brought a book to my attention and once it arrived I was unable to set it down.

I have always been interested in First Peoples (they were settled) and settlers (or resettlers).

The book is called Resettling the Range: Animals, Ecologies and Human Communities in British Columbia by John Thistle.

He talks mostly about government being involved in trying to get rid of wild horses and grasshoppers as the major competitors for grass for cattle. I will stick with horses for now.

I think it is clear that horses weren’t seen in 1793 when Alexander Mackenzie came down the Fraser to (now) Quesnel and was guided by foot along the Grease Trail to Bella Coola. However, Simon Fraser and David Thompson in 1808 both reported in the journals of exploration that they saw abundant groups of horses, including Aboriginals on horseback at Soda Creek (Fraser).

In any event, that horses abounded under First Nations stewardship before 1846, meant that “wild  horses” use and management qualify under Canadian law as an aboriginal use and right. This fact of law was confirmed  in the recent Williams decision which recognized Aboriginal title over much of the Chilcotin territory.

This book references the many “claims” over the post-contact years made by First Nations citing the shortage of good land for winter feed for both cattle and horses.

Only a small proportion of lowlands were left for Indian Reserves after the ranching settlers pre-empted lands. Remember that “Indians” could not take up lands unless they gave up their aboriginal birthright and became Canadian Citizens.

So when ranch lands were fenced (hayfields and winter/spring pastures) they excluded horses and cattle belonging to First Nations peoples. Horses could better survive the winters than cattle in the upper lands along the valleys so that was the main livestock they had. At least in that was some wealth in the absence of better agricultural land which was suited to cattle.

A footnote here: the small pox epidemic in the Interior happened in the winter of 1862-1863 depopulating First Nations communities and obviously weakening them socially and politically.

We have to remember that each “band” had only enough land for one or two families, since the amount they were reserved was about enough for one good ranch running 300-400 cattle.

Then, in the first part of the 20th century, government decided to licence users of the common rangeland. Before this the open rangeland was the commons and anyone including the First Nations could run cattle and horses there.

Officially excluding wild horses from the rangeland was done ostensibly to better manage the grass and prevent overgrazing.  The ability for government to do this appears weakened by new court decisions.

So for now and until frameworks and treaties are negotiated and other court decisions are made, management of the range is an unresolved matter and wild horses may just be collateral damage by people acting outside a rule the law, as was seen by the recent killings of four horses in the Chilcotin.

Who cares what these horses are called. Most are certainly “wild” in that they are not easily handled as we expect domestic horses to be. Real “wild horses” that existed here 10,000 years ago were probably all killed off for food, only to return when the Spanish explorers returned.

This book is a good read and documents an important perspective for modern life and the range.

David Zirnhelt is a member of the Cariboo Cattlemen’s Association and chair of the advisory committee for the Applied Sustainable Ranching program which started at Thompson Rivers University in Williams Lake this January.