Battle for information vindicates Alberta’s wild horses

People often say they think that campaigning for animals seems like a fun job, but in truth about 90% of it is gathering and assessing information to support or lobby for good policy decisions for animal protection. A perfect example of this “less glamorous”, behind the scenes work can be found in Zoocheck’s campaign to protect the wild horses of Alberta.

As our supporters know Zoocheck has a long history with wild horse issues in Alberta including an intensive campaign in the 1990s to try to protect the wild horse population that once existed on Canadian Forces Base Suffield near Medicine Hat.

In more recent years, Zoocheck has worked with Help Alberta Wildies Society (HAWS) and other organizations and experts in Alberta to stop the culling of the remaining wild horse populations in the Rocky Mountain foothills. In 2015 Zoocheck released an extensive expert technical report outlining how the Alberta government had ignored relevant science in developing their wild horse management program. Zoocheck also helped facilitate and participated in a W5 expose on the mismanagement of the wild horses. Since that time, the efforts of Zoocheck, HAWS and our partners have ensured that no organized, government sanctioned culls of wild horses have taken place.

The Alberta government’s primary argument for culling wild horses was rooted in the belief that the horses were causing significant harm to the ecosystems they inhabited. They claimed proof of that was documented in the rangeland health reports they used to inform policy development. But they were holding those reports secret from the public, making it impossible for anyone to verify their claims.

Utilizing Alberta’s freedom of information law Zoocheck fought for nearly 8 years to obtain the 2015 rangeland health information, which consisted of thousands of pages of material, that the Information Commissioner’s Office at the time said should be released. The Alberta government and private interests didn’t want that information released and fought the decision, resulting in Zoocheck undertaking a long, complicated, laborious effort involving filing numerous lengthy applications, submissions, endless correspondence and maintaining a comprehensive paper trail to support our arguments to the Alberta Office of the Information Commissioner.

After our first complaint the Commissioner’s office opined that it was public information and should be released, yet still the government refused to release it, forcing us to seek a full inquiry of their refusal decision. However, pursuing a full inquiry process is quite rare and we soon learned why. It turned out to be exceedingly complex, slow moving process that required exceptional organization, but we knew that it was the key to keeping the horses protected so we believed it would be exceptionally valuable in protecting the wild horses.

Fast forward to 2022, the Information Commissioner’s Office issued an order for the government to release the information. Zoocheck arranged for the rangeland health data we received to be analyzed by a professional agrologist who found that there was no evidence that wild horses were causing the significant, harmful rangeland damage the Alberta government claimed they were.

Of course, Zoocheck’s previous research by qualified biologists, wild horse scientists and others all supported our contention that wild horses were not having anywhere near the impact the Alberta government and private interests claimed. We had also dispelled the myth that the number of horses was growing exponentially by working with Help Alberta Wildies Society to do our own independent aerial wild horse counts, in 2022 and 2023, which proved that wild horses were not growing out of control and were not damaging the environment.

Immediately after the order was issued for the government to release the 2015 range health information, we filed to get the same information since that time and were met with yet another barrier. The Alberta government was now claiming that they could not get the information for at least 8 months and missed several deadlines laid out by the Commissioner’s Office. Once again, Zoocheck had to file a submission which resulted in yet another order to the Alberta government to release the information within the required timeframe. That was win number 3.

But of course, the Alberta government is still seeking to keep the newest information secret. We have just learned they are now claiming that they do not have to release the most important, recent information because, after Zoocheck’s last request, they signed a new Memorandum of Agreement (MOU) with the ranching association that collects the information on the Alberta government’s behalf. The ranching association is well known for wanting the wild horses removed from the Alberta Foothills, so this is very much another example of the “fox guarding the henhouse” in wild animal management programs.

However, based on Zoocheck’s experience so far, we know it is not that simple. A government agency can’t just enter into an agreement with a third party to opt out of a legislative responsibility such as complying with the Freedom of Information Act. And this exact issue was addressed in the previous report by the Information Commissioner. Still the Alberta government is arguing they have the right to refuse access to the information, forcing us back to the Commissioner for a fourth time to seek a ruling for them to release the current information.

We have no doubt that this will not be the last hurdle to obtaining the necessary information that, so far, has confirmed what we have known all along which is that the horses are not responsible for range damage. What is important to note is the information we already have supports the position the damage is more likely attributed to thousands of cattle that are turned out for essentially free grazing on public lands, a method of subsidizing the cruel and environmentally damaging beef industry in Alberta.

While Zoocheck’s first inquiry took nearly 8 years to complete, we expect this new complaint to be resolved much faster given that nearly all of the issues have been addressed in the previous order. But it is critical to keep doing this work to keep the ranching community and others from influencing the Alberta government to restart wild horse culling.

This entire prolonged effort to acquire “public information” about a public issue of great interest and importance to so many people describes just a few of the roadblocks and obstacles that can be encountered in a wide variety of advocacy initiatives. They show that, no matter the issue, advocates must often have to get informed, understand processes, remain very diligent and persevere, not only to achieve the results being sought but also to make sure that what has been achieved isn’t overturned.