Last Wild Horses of Canada Symbolize a First Nation’s Battle to Protect Its Territory

Last Wild Horses of Canada Symbolize a First Nation’s Battle to Protect Its Territory

Andrew Findlay. Photographs by Patrice Halley

For at least 200 years wild horses have been part of the frontier mystique and the character of Chilcotin country. Recently these animals have emerged as a symbol of strength and pride for the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation—and also as a source of controversy. The horses have pitted conservationists, who believe the wild Chilcotin horse has noble ancestry and may be among the last mustangs in Canada, against the provincial government and some local ranchers, who scorn them as feral over-grazers, a nuisance to be culled.

Compelling historical evidence suggests that Chilcotin Natives in this remote enclave of British Columbia were accomplished horseman well before the first Europeans traveled here. For example, on June 16, 1808, one traveler recounted meeting Natives who “were exceedingly well-dressed in leather and were on horseback.” An increasing number of people believe these remnant bands of wild Chilcotin horses are the descendants of the Spanish mustangs that once roamed throughout North America by the tens of thousands, and might have arrived here from the southern Great Plains through trade or natural migration.

They are truly wild animals, highly sensitive to humans, with ears that can discern the snap of a twig underfoot from two football fields away. At the slightest hint of a scent carried on a shifting wind, they bolt and disappear into the trees, vanishing so quickly that they might seem like a fleeting apparition. Two distinct bands—the Chestnut and Black Stallion bands totaling 25 to 27 animals—are routinely observed in this area. In the broader Brittany Triangle, roughly 155,000 hectares, there could be as many as 14 wild horse bands and anywhere from 140 to 200 individuals, in addition to those that range in the Nemaiah Valley.

They travel a network of forest trails linking dozens of meadows, natural pastures where they forage on northern reedgrass, Altai fescue and sedges. During the long cold winter they often repair to the shelter of the forest canopy to feed on pine grass. Their social behavior is consistent with that observed in wild horses elsewhere. Each band is led by a stallion that will fiercely guard its harem of six to 10 mares and dependent foals, and will mark its territory with curious stacks of horse dung, known as “stallion piles.” The presence of colts in the bands is tolerated only until they reach the age of around two years at which time the stallion forces the libidinous young males out of the band.

Convinced that the Brittany Triangle represents something ecologically, if not historically, unique, the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation government created a wild horse preserve in the Brittany Triangle in 2002. It was Canada’s second official wild horse refuge, the other one being on Nova Scotia’s Sable Island. One of the major concerns was the careless actions of people. When the snows melt, hordes of mushroom pickers descend on the Brittany Triangle to cash in on a bumper crop of morels, leaving behind quad and four-wheel-drive trails and campsites littered with trash.

In many ways the tiny Xeni Gwet’in First Nation is at a crossroads. For so long, the Nemaiah Valley was isolated from mainstream society, but now a gravel road brings a steady trickle of tourists to hunt moose, fish in Chilko Lake or hike through the alpine meadows surrounding Mount Ts’yl-os. Among many band members, there has been a reluctance to connect to the electricity grid for fear that doing so will erode their ability to control development in the Nemaiah.

The Xeni Gwet’in are also still recovering from the effluent of social ills, broken homes, alcoholism and drug abuse, that flowed from the residential school system when youngsters were removed from their homes and taken to St. Joseph’s Mission in Williams Lake and forbidden from speaking the Tsilhqot’in language. Today steps are being taken to reconnect the youth with their cultural roots. Xeni Gwet’in children learn Tsilhqot’in at a small day care, old folks come together every July for the Elders Gathering, and at the annual gymkhana, young Xeni Gwet’in are schooled in the fundamentals of horsemanship.

But if Xeni Gwet’in culture is going to survive young people need reasons to stay in the Nemaiah; they need more than just romantic notions of galloping wild horses. Harry Setah, who passed on in 2009, was a man with one foot planted in old-time horse culture and the other striding towards an uncertain future. Setah had the enviable job title of wild horse ranger, patrolling the triangle and keeping a check on human activity. Like most Xeni Gwet’in of his generation, Setah was a former rodeo cowboy, his bowlegged, aging body showing the effects of broken bones acquired from his days on the circuit. Among the Xeni Gwet’in, wild horses are legendary for their agility and endurance on tough mountain trials, and Setah spoke about them in almost mythological terms. On the other hand, he also referred to them as you would any other resource that needs to be conserved, like deer or salmon: “They’re not the best-looking horses, but they’re very surefooted; can’t be beat in the mountains. And they’re smart, too. They know how to deworm themselves by eating alkali.”

Modern conveniences have begun to jeopardize the Xeni Gwet’in’s traditional horse culture. Young people are leaving the Nemaiah Valley to find work, and pickups and quads are rapidly replacing horses. Even Setah spent more time on what he jokingly referred to as his “Japanese quarter horse” than he did riding his steed. And like others from his community, he had to look elsewhere for employment, a search that took him to the oil patch of northeastern British Columbia for several winters. “I don’t want to leave, but there’s no work around here,” he said a few years ago, before hitting the ignition switch on his quad and twisting the throttle.

Not everyone is entranced by the wild horses of Chilcotin. Some, in fact, don’t even think they are wild. “Our ministry does not have a policy on wild horses because our jurisdiction is under the Wildlife Act, which does not recognize these horses as wildlife. Because they were once domesticated, they are not considered wild the same way as bears, wolves, deer and cougars are,” says Max Cleeveley, a former communications director for the Ministry of Environment.

Chris Easthope was an agrologist with the forest service in Williams Lake and dealt with the feral horse issue for many years. He believes the controversy surrounding them is guided more by “emotion than fact.” In the early 1980s Easthope oversaw the capture and cull of dozens of wild horses in and around the Nemaiah Valley and the Brittany Triangle. Some were shot, others were captured and sold. “I don’t use the term wild horses,” He says. “I don’t believe it’s an appropriate term. All the horses that are running on Crown range are feral horses,” he adds, pointing out that many “wild” horses in the Chilcotin have visible brands.

Ranchers don’t love the horses, either. They disparagingly refer to them as “hay-burners” because of a digestive system that demands copious amounts of forage. Thanks to the shape of their mouth and incisor teeth, horses are anatomically well adapted to graze much lower to the ground than cattle. However, charges of overgrazing by horses in the Chilcotin seem to be based more on anecdote and rumor than science and research. Easthope concedes there has never been an in-depth study of their impact on Chilcotin grasslands, but says that his field observations suggest feral horses can have a considerable negative effect. For example once horses have grazed an area heavily, unpalatable flora and pasture sage tend to fill in afterwards, he says. These days, given the high profile of the Chilcotin “wild” horse, killing them as a control measure might be a public relations nightmare, but Easthope doesn’t rule it out as a last resort.

Jack Woodward has been handling Xeni Gwet’in legal matters for more than two decades; so long that he even has his own Tsilhqot’in nickname—Dlig, which means squirrel. “People talk about cowboys and Indians,” he says, trying to describe the intimate relationship between the Xeni Gwet’in and their horses. “Well, these Indians are cowboys.”

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