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The recent slaughter of 17 wild horses in British Columbia’s Interior devastated members of the local community who regard them as an ancient and enchanting part of the landscape. However, the horses are thought of by others as pests, grazing machines that out-compete important species for food and territory.

Even ecologists disagree on whether wild horses deserve more protection.

On March 10, Tk’emlups Rural RCMP were notified that “several” horses had been found dead on B.C. Crown land approximately an hour southwest of Kamloops, near Skeetchestn Indian Band lands.

Officers discovered 17 horse carcasses at two distinct crime scenes. Six of them were clustered at one site, while the other 11 were found spread out across approximately 1.5 kilometres.

“They weren’t all together, they were just kind of, one, and then 100 yards, there’d be another one,” said Corporal Cory Lepine, the lead investigator on the case. “And then, 100 yards, there’d be another one.”

Cpl. Lepine anticipates charging whoever is responsible for the killings under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, which carries a maximum punishment of $75,000 in fines and two years in jail.

Cpl. Lepine believes the horses were killed from a distance by somebody with a background in hunting. Although the carcasses were difficult to examine given that they appeared to have been killed about two weeks earlier, the one horse the RCMP managed to do a necropsy on had been shot directly through the heart.

He said others appeared to have single bullet wounds, indicating the use of a high-calibre rifle. Cpl. Lepine also noted that considering the difficulty of killing so many horses, there could have been multiple shooters.

The free-roaming horses are culturally significant to the Skeetchestn Indian Band, a community with deep roots in horsemanship that has held a rodeo for well over 100 years, according to former band councillor Terry Deneault.

In a statement released Wednesday, the band said that it was “saddened” by the “heinous crime” that occurred.

“As our stories tell us, we are connected to all animals that walk, fly and swim, and it is our responsibility to ensure that all life is respected and cared for,” the statement said.

“While these horses did not live on Skeetchestn’s land and the crime occurred outside of our community, we are mourning the unnecessary loss of wildlife that we share this beautiful landscape with.”

Somewhere between 150 and 250 feral horses live in the immediate area, while estimates from 2019 pegged the free-ranging horse population of the greater Chilcotin plateau region at 2,787.

In B.C., as in the rest of Canada save for a handful of small reserves, free-roaming horses aren’t considered “wild” since the government doesn’t consider them to be native to the land. They are instead branded as “feral,” which disqualifies them from most wildlife protections.

Wayne McCrory, a biologist in B.C. who has studied free-roaming horses in Canada extensively, thinks new legislation is necessary.

“It’s time to ramp up protection, both federal and provincial, in my opinion, to stop this senseless slaughter when some trigger-happy person just decides to take the law into his own hands,” Mr. McCrory said.

Mr. McCrory is involved in research on Chilcotin horses’ DNA that could prove they’re descendants of horses that arrived in Canada in the 1700s. This could help establish that the horses are native to the land and therefore eligible for protection.

However, Mateen Hessami, a University of British Columbia Okanagan-based wildlife researcher, said the resources that would go toward protecting free-roaming horses are better spent supporting less resilient animals such as moose, elk, and deer. The horses have high reproductive rates compared to those others and are less vulnerable to predation from mountain lions and wolves.

Mr. Hessami also explained that because horses have only a single stomach while other grazing mammals have several, horses are much less efficient and require far more food to survive. This means they can out-compete with moose, elk, and deer for food, hindering those populations and putting stress on communities that rely on them as a food source. “We know that in the Chilcotin area, moose are struggling and so are other ungulates [hoofed animals].”

While Mr. Hessami said he is in favour of laws that penalize the poaching of the horses, he stressed that equitably managing a delicate ecosystem means prioritizing the values and needs of the actual stakeholders.

“It comes down to those local communities, local Indigenous peoples that need to make those decisions in terms of the trajectory of wild horses.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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