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September 2014 update on the horse problem: Root Cause Analysis

I have received many calls lately about the number of roaming horses on the West Bench.  In addition, many people have noticed that some herds have taken up residence on the West Bench full-time.  A few years ago it was rare to see a horse on the bench in the summer.

I have to start by saying the following:

  1. We recognize that this is a serious problem.  I live on the West Bench, as do many RDOS staff. We see what you see.  We encounter the same problems you encounter.  The issue here is not one of unawareness or misdiagnosis of the problem.
  2. We agree that something needs to be done.  The problem here is the “something”: what exactly should be done?

There has been much written already about the fact that the RDOS, as a local government, lacks any real levers to deal with this cross-jurisdictional problem.  Specifically:

  1. For complex historical and constitutional reasons, First Nations operate according to a different set of rules.  For example, there is no obligation for First Nations grazing land (technically crown land) to be fenced in the same way non-reserve land needs to be fenced (Section 3 of the Trespass Act).
  2. Area F does not have a “horse control service”.  In other words, taxpayers in Area F have not authorized the RDOS to spend any money on this problem.  Although you may “pay your taxes” (I hear this one a lot), horse control is not one of the things you pay for.  We are technically forbidden to spend money on this issue.  The money we do spend is out of "contingency" and "rural projects" budgets. These are not meant to be permanent expenditures.
  3. Having said that, we could certainly create a horse control service and I am sure we would have solid taxpayer support.  The issue, as noted above, is that we don’t really know what to do.  We cannot bring a service to voters to approve unless the service is fully specified (this is the plan, this is how much it will cost, and so on).


So what are we doing in order to figure out what to do?  When I started the job as electoral area director in 2008, I thought a reasonable first step would be to conduct a formal problem analysis using a specific series of stages.  The first stage in the model is finding out what our “objectives” should be.  In other words, when it comes to horse control, what to people on the West Bench want?  We conducted a fairly large Delphi survey (results documented on this site) in an attempt to identify a set of fundamental objectives.  I think this exercise was pretty successful.  The Delphi panel of 50 or so people from various demographic segments and with vastly different opinions on the horses converged a set of objectives, such as:

  1. Find a long-term solution
  2. Treat the animals humanely
  3. Maintain relations with the Penticton Indian Band
  4. Minimize cost, and so on.


Knowing these priorities helps to focus all that follows in the problem solving process.

The next stage in the problem solving model is Root Cause Analysis.  I initially skipped this step because, from the West Bench’s point of view, the root cause of roaming horses is pretty obvious: a large number of PIB horses graze on land that is no longer effectively fenced.  I therefore jumped ahead to the Generating Alternatives stage of the model.  This is a novel problem about which RDOS staff has little experience.  My intention was to draw on the “wisdom of the crowd” to generate possible solutions.  We ran a second Delphi survey to generate and assess (at a very rough level) potential alternatives.  The most preferred alternative was a fence separating PIB range lands from the West Bench.  We worked with the Chief Kruger and PIB administration to come up with a plan that seemed to have good promise.  However, I had some personal doubts about the effectiveness of cattle guards if the horses got really hungry on their side of the fence.  Several people have told me they have seen horses cross the existing cattle guards on the West Bench, which is odd because the fence beside the cattle guard is non-existent.  The last thing I wanted to do was build a $300,000 fence that the horses could easily outsmart.  That would violate the objectives identified by the Delphi panel.

(map of the proposed fence on PIB land--click for a larger image)

While we investigated the cattle guard issue, we latched onto one of the ideas that arose during the “Possible Solutions” Delphi: feeding stations away from populated areas.  These seemed to work surprisingly well from 2009 until about 2011.  But I think what we were really seeing at this time was the result of partial cull by the PIB.  The PIB keeps pretty quiet about culls, and for good reason.  The net result is that as the herd grew, the shortcomings of the feeding stations became pretty obvious.  We discontinued the pilot project at the end of the winter of 2013-14.  The total cost for the 5-year feeding station experiment was just under $16,000.

In 2014, overrun with horses, I went back to the problem solving model and reconsidered the importance of Root Cause Analysis.  At the same time, Zoe Kirk, our BearSmart coordinator and WaterWise ambassador was brought on board to provide some sustained effort on the problem.  She almost immediately scored a win with the PIB and the BC Government by helping to secure some helicopter time for a horse count.  The results of this initial investigation were reported to the RDOS board and can be found here.

It seems pretty clear from discussions with RDOS staff (including Zoe Kirk) and Dolly Kruger from the PIB that the true root cause of the horse problem is change.  The economics of the horse industry have changed over the last few decades to the point that it is no longer economically viable to actively manage horses.  At the same time, the horses are still there, and they have multiplied according to well-understood mechanisms.  But we cannot roll back the clock and make horses important again. We thus have to analyze the non-dynamic root causes as we understand them.  The most important root cause as of 2014 is that there are way more horses (> 2x) than anyone thought on PIB lands—almost 600.  This confirms the observations of the range consultant we hired in 2009: The number of horses on PIB lands vastly exceeds the carrying capacity of the land.

And there are other root causes.  Below is my draft version of this analysis as of September, 2014.  This has been constructed in consultation with RDOS staff and PIB members.  The idea with a Root Cause diagram is that you start at the top with the observable problem and then decompose the problem into causes.  These causes may have other, more fundamental causes.  So the diagram ends when we identify a set of fundamental (or root causes) at the bottom of the diagram.  The point of an exhaustive Root Cause Analysis is that we can then address the causes one-by-one in order to solve the top-level problem.

(Root Cause Analysis--click to get a larger image)

Let’s walk through this.  The top of the diagram is the problem: too many horses roaming in rural neighborhoods.  There are two hypothesized causes of this odd state of affairs: (a) too many horse and (b) no mechanisms for exclusion (such as effective fencing).  Each of these two causes has other causes.  For example, the reasons for "no effective fencing" include: no organization for maintenance, natural decay, and deliberate breach/destruction by recreational users.  Each of these may, in turn, have more fundamental (and thus more addressable) root causes.  For example, one solution to the problem of recreational users breaching the fence is to locate the fence far away from recreational uses and to make the fence porous for such users (e.g., through the use of specialized gates, and so on).  In other words, a good Root Cause Analysis diagram helps to suggest alternatives and solutions.  Moreover, a systematic and exhaustive analysis helps to ensure that nothing major is missed.

The root cause in the diagram that we are having the most difficulty addressing is low attrition of horses.  Basically, the herd is growing at a natural rate without limit.  Accordingly, we have to understand the cultural and/or economic benefits that make members of the PIB want to own large numbers of horses.  One cause is the expectation the prices for horses (both for working and for “protein”) will increase in the future.  If true, future price increases would provide strong incentives for horse owners to accumulate horses.  The costs of accumulating horses is largely borne the community, not the horse owners, so it makes some sense for horse owners to hedge.  Unfortunately, it is hard for us to address this root cause without certain knowledge of how the market for horses will evolve.

Thoughts and comments are welcome below.

Update: the newsletter below went out to West Bench residents in mid October.

West Bench Horses 2014F.pdf






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