[This is an attempt at a brief history of the horse problem. If you know more about it, please let me know and I will update this posting. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find much information at the RDOS since the RDOS has historically considered this a Provincial / Penticton Indian Band matter.]
Wandering horses have become a serious problem on the West Bench in the past 20 years. The horses normally roam First Nations land and crown land on the hills above the West Bench. In the winter, however, the horses move down in to populated areas, where they leave a surprising quantity of droppings, dig up lawns, damage trees, and trample on the occasional in-ground sprinkler head.
Prior to the late 1980s, the Canadian Pacific Railroad (and previously the Kettle Valley Railroad) maintained fencing along the west side of the railbed to keep horses and other livestock off the track. Following the demise of the railroad, these fences were kept up in the 1980s by a group of volunteers, including Mel Murton and Bob Jenkins. Materials for these repairs were often paid for by the West Bench Irrigation District. Unfortunately, the volunteers eventually lost their battle against natural decay and recreational users (seeking access to trails) and the fences today are essentially non-existent.
As it turns out, the West Bench is not the only part of the world with a wild horse problem. The western United States has about 33,000 roaming mustangs plus another 30,000 corraled at a cost of US$26M per year. The plight of these wild horses was the topic of a recent article in the New York Times. Some parts of the US also have a problem with feral pigs—about 4-5 million of them. This story in The Economist makes think that we are relatively lucky with our horse problem. Finally, closer to home, this story in the Oliver Chronicle (see page 2) provides some background about the horse problem in the South Okanagan.
Current Status of the Problem
The Province of British Columbia has strong "right to farm" legislation and, as a consequence, property owners (rather than livestock owners) are generally responsible for keeping animals off private property. This is explained in a Ministry of Agriculture Farm Practices summary:
The Livestock Act defines Livestock Districts (areas where livestock may be at large) and Pound Districts (areas where livestock at large are subject to capture) and the conditions of capture, liability and trespass. The Range Act defines conditions that livestock may be on Crown land. The Trespass Act requires the owners of adjoining land in a rural area to make, keep up and repair the fence between their properties, unless otherwise agreed upon.
Complaints may arise from neighbours who do not understand that in many situations they must fence out other people’s livestock, whether livestock are straying onto their property from deeded or Crown land.
In other words, if you live in a rural area and someone else's horses are making a mess of your lawn, it is your responsibility to erect fencing to keep the horses out. This does not strike many residents as fair. But it is what the law says.
Municipalities and regional districts in British Columbia are free to establish "pound areas" in order to enact and enforce animal control bylaws in neighborhoods adjacent to "livestock areas". Although some attempts have been made in the past to impound wandering horses in both Area F and Summerland, the impounding approach raises some tricky economic and political issues. The key economic issue is that impounding is expensive—we are talking about huge animals here, not dogs and cats. The key political issue is that impounding horses that belong to members of the Penticton Indian Band and threatening destruction or sale if the owners do not reimburse the impounding costs is perhaps not the best way to build better relationships with our First Nations neighbors.
As of March 2009, there are many horses wandering the neighborhoods on Penticton's west bench. A group of animal rights supporters have begun supplying hay to feed the horses, which has apparently increased the concentration of the animals in areas where they have not traditionally been found in large numbers. I have received a steadily-increasing volume of calls from residents—some of them long-time West Benchers—arguing that the winter of 2008-09 has been the worst ever for horses and that the RDOS should do something.
The Role of the RDOS
Regional Districts in British Columbia provide "general government" (e.g., land use planning, bylaw creation and enforcement) for rural, unincorporated areas of the province. Regional districts are also permitted to provide other services desired by residents. Thus, for example, the RDOS provides garbage and recycling collection for most residents of the regional district. The RDOS also supplies water for some areas such as the village of Naramata and Faulder.
The RDOS is permitted to provide its residents with a new service (let's call it "horse control") as long as some basic conditions are met:
- A "service area" is created. Residents within the service area are deemed to benefit from the service.
- A majority of voters within the service area assent to having the RDOS provide the service. Voter assent is typically acquired through a referendum or the alternate approval process (which is cheaper and faster).
- The total initial and on-going cost of the service (including an allocation of RDOS administrative overhead) is passed on to residents in the service area as a line item on their property taxes. This tax may be based on assessed property values or may be a parcel tax (a flat fee that is assessed to each residence independent of assessed value).
If a majority of voters within a proposed service area approve the service, then the new service is provided and residents within the area (regardless of how they voted) cannot opt out. Conversely, if voter assent is not obtained, the RDOS cannot provide the service. Fire protection for Apex (RDOS Area D) is an example of a proposed service for which a majority of voters in the proposed service area have so far been unwilling to pay.
A Proposal for a Horse Control Service
I have recently initiated a project at the board level of the RDOS to develop a horse control service for the west side of Okanagan Lake. See:
- joint press release with the Penticton Indian Band
- coverage in the Penticton Herald
- coverage in the Penticton Western News
I personally have no firm idea of what an effective horse control service might look like or what its scope might be (e.g., does it include rural Summerland and parts of RDOS Area D south of the airport?). At this early stage, I have semi-randomly assembled collection of stakeholders to act as a Delphi panel. Most of the members of the Delphi panel are residents of the effected area although I have also included a handful of RDOS staff. The purpose of the Delphi panel is to ensure that residents are heard very early in the decision process. Ultimately, a recommended course of action will be developed by RDOS staff in consultation with experts, consultants, and other levels of governments including the Penticton Indian Band. However, I believe that it is important to give staff clear direction about our goals and objectives before they start investigating solutions. I also believe that local residents posess valuable knowledge about the horse problem and should be asked to help generate potential solutions.
The decision process I envision for addressing the horse problem is described on the next page of this document.
Update as of October 2014
This issue went largely dormant between 2009 and 2012. This was likely due to two factors:
- Horse-owning members of the PIB reduced the size of the herd. It is not known whether they did this for economic reasons (the horses fetched a good price) or whether they wanted to help solve the problem.
- The RDOS worked with the PIB to provide feeding stations west of the gravel pits. This seemed to keep most of the horses out of the West Bench most of the time. The exception was water. Hay does not contain moisture like snow-covered grass so the horses had to find water. This seemed to lead to more traffic up and down West Bench Hill and more horses near Red Wing and the highway.
Gradually, however, the problem seemed to get worse. Knowing what we know now about the number of horses in question, it seems reasonable to conclude that there is a tipping point in the number of horses. The helicopter survey in the spring of 2014 showed PIB lands are covered with horses. For the 20 or 30 we see on the West Bench there are hundreds more staking out their territory in the hills. Once the horse population reaches a certain point, some of them must migrate to the West Bench to find food. A handful of feeding stations are not sufficient.
So we are once again faced with a serious horse problem, as we were in the winter of 2008. My most recent update can be found below.