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The “Wild” or “Feral” Distraction: Effects of Cultural Understandings on Management Controversy Over Free-Ranging Horses (Equus ferus caballus)

Abstract

Use of the terms “wild” and “feral” characterizes ongoing debate over management of free-ranging horses. However, the focus on terminology tends to obscure complex differences in meanings and cultural perception. Examining a case study in the Chilcotin region of British Columbia, we explore how the terms “wild” and “feral” distract from the underlying issues at stake in management of horses and the landscape: different ways of valuing, understanding, and relating to land and animals. To be effective in the long term, and to avoid an unwitting continuation of outdated culturally biased land management practices, future decisions regarding management of lands and free-roaming horses in the Chilcotin would benefit from an integrated process informed by both ecological and socio-cultural information.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. Specific results from informants are referenced in the following text by a combination of “IN” and a number (e.g. IN01). The Research Ethics and Protocol agreements under which this study was conducted suggest that participants remain anonymous in all publications unless they expressly agreed to be identified. Hence no further identifying characteristics are associated with participants in this paper.

  2. In this paper we use the Anglicised spelling Chilcotin to refer to the geographic region, and Tsilhqot’in to refer to First Nations people.

  3. The Grasslands Conservation Council of British Columbia (GCC) describes grasslands in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region as “extensive open grasslands [that] hug the Fraser and Chilcotin river valleys and higher benchlands with open, dry Douglas-fir and lodgepole pine forests above them… A number of plants reach the limits of their distribution in parts of this region, creating some unique plant associations.” (GCC 2010).

  4. Aerial counts have been conducted over various sub-units of the Chilcotin for years by the provincial Ministry of Forests and Range (MFR), and occasionally by First Nations and NGOs. Prior to 2009 aerial population surveys were inconsistent in terms of flight path, coverage, frequency, seasonal timing, and count methodologies. Hence statistically comparable historic numbers are not available for horse populations, although count data predating 2009 do provide some useful anecdotal information. Forested terrain in the region, and the fact that it is common practice for domestic horses (with brands which cannot be seen from the air) to range free in some areas of the Chilcotin contribute to the inaccuracy of wild/feralhorse population estimates from aerial counts.

  5. The Xeni Gwet’in First Nation are one member nation of the Tsilhqot’in people.

  6. In the face of global industrial development and exploitation of landscapes, it remains important to maintain some distinction whereby the values (ecological and cultural) of relatively “wild” landscapes and places are recognized and conserved. What is key is to cultivate acknowledgement of the fact that a landscape does not have to be untouched by humans in order to be wild, that in reality wild places tend to fall along a spectrum in their relationship to various degrees of human activity, and that the ways in which we define what is wild influence the ways in which people characterize ourselves in relation to nature.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to acknowledge generous support from members of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, all the Tsilhqot’in Nations, and other residents in the Nemiah Valley, for allowing and facilitating research within their communities and territory, and for their warm hospitality towards the primary researcher during her visits. Field research was made possible by in-kind support from Friends of Nemaiah Valley (FONV), Valhalla Wilderness Society, British Columbia Ministry of Forests and Range, Woodward and Company, as well as numerous individual volunteers. The research was supported by financial contributions from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), the Ontario Ministry of Colleges Training and Universities, the Wilburforce Foundation, The University of Waterloo, FONV, Valhalla Wilderness Society, The Vancouver Foundation, and from individual private donors. Thanks to Pam Schaus for her map, and to anonymous reviewers for their contributions.

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Bhattacharyya, J., Slocombe, D.S. & Murphy, S.D. The “Wild” or “Feral” Distraction: Effects of Cultural Understandings on Management Controversy Over Free-Ranging Horses (Equus ferus caballus). Hum Ecol 39, 613–625 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10745-011-9416-9

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Keywords

  • Wild
  • Feral
  • Free-ranging horses
  • Cultural values
  • Landscape management
  • British Columbia