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Roaming horses would be 'unacceptable' outside of Pemberton: MLA Sturdy

MLA Jordan Sturdy shared issues locals face on Highway 99 in a graphic speech to the Legislative Assembly on March 13
MLA Jordan Sturdy speaks in the BC Legislature on March 13.

The issue of roaming horses in Pemberton would be unacceptable anywhere else in the province, MLA Jordan Sturdy told the BC Legislative Assembly in a graphic speech on March 13.

“Imagine for a moment that you are driving the Sea to Sky highway. It’s blowing and it’s cold, mixed rain and snow. You round a corner and without warning in front of you are a herd of 60 horses, stretched right across the highway,” he said. “Even as you hit the brakes, you smash into them. Horses come down. Down falls a younger horse, crunches onto your hood before sliding off to the side before it comes through your windshield. Your vehicle tumbles off the road and comes to a rest into the ditch, which fortunately is not full of water.”

Sturdy explained this scenario happened right outside his own North Arm Farm last fall.

“I pulled out of the driveway in the morning and immediately saw the red and blue lights of the RCMP eerily illuminating dead horses’ guts, bones and blood spread across the highway,” he said. “We learned later that two other horses had wandered off to die alone. A dozen horses have been killed in the last year or so. Many more have been killed over the last decade.”

The area is not open range, and not designated for livestock, “and yet livestock are left to roam,” Sturdy said. “It’s a situation that would be unacceptable elsewhere in the province. Would the Fraser Valley, the Kootenays or the Cariboo tolerate such hazards on their numbered highways? I think not.”

'It is unacceptable'

Sturdy said many of the involved parties are shifting the blame in a dangerous game that could eventually result in the loss of human life.

“Why is this chronic issue on Highway 99 in the Pemberton Valley ignored?” he asked. “Countless horses have been killed. Vehicles have been damaged. People have been hurt. Yet despite the risks to both animals and human lives, expressions of concern are put forward and then the responsibility is deflected. Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Forests, Solicitor General RCMP, Ministry of Transportation and the SPCA all decline to take on responsibility.”

Sturdy has previously requested the speed limit be reduced from 80 to 60 km/h on that particular stretch of road, but said this “simple” request has so far been refused.

“Meanwhile, damage to the private and public property continues, horses die, people wail and the government does not act,” he said. “It is unacceptable.”

When asked about the issue of the roaming horses at the Pemberton Chamber of Commerce’s Lunch and Learn meeting on Thursday, March 21, Sturdy suggested a radical solution.

“Put in a fence, bring the horses into that area, feed them, hold them, and then ship them,” he said. “There is no reason why the festival grounds shouldn’t be fenced up.”

After the event, Sturdy acknowledged to Pique that putting the horses up for auction could lead to them being shipped abroad for meat.  

“Likely the outcome would be shipped to auction,” he said. “When I put my pigs up for auction, I don’t know where they are going.”

The herd’s owner, Wayne Andrews, previously told Pique that his relationship with his horses is deeply rooted in Lil’wat culture.

“We have to treat horses with respect,” he said. “Right now, I’m behind, but nature waits for me. Every time nature waits for me it’s because I look after and respect the horses.” 

Roxy, which belonged to Wayne’s daughter, was one of the horses struck dead in the fall.

“It’s always hard,” he said. “So many horses have been killed. We are being terrorized by the highway. In 1990, people blocked the road because they didn’t want it paved. It got paved anyway. This is the last of our freedom area. Once this is gone, I will leave. I will take these horses and leave.”

Pique reached out to Andrews, but did not hear back before press time.

At a Pemberton council meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023, councillors agreed to send letters, copying the Lil’wat Nation, to MLA Jordan Sturdy, the BC SPCA, and the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure requesting additional support in the matter.

In his letter to the Ministry of Transportation, Mayor Mike Richman said the roaming horses have caused significant issues in the Pemberton Valley for many years.

“To date, there have been three major incidents … resulting in at least three horses being killed, extensive damage to vehicles and residents and commuters being impacted physically and emotionally,” he wrote. “There is a mounting sentiment that loss of human life is imminent if nothing is done to mitigate the hazards posed with the comingling of the horses with the highway.”

Communications and Engagement Advisor, Michelle Fernandes, told Pique the Village of Pemberton  (VOP) has long recognized the safety concerns with this issue.

“Council has been actively advocating community partners and government agencies regarding community concerns around the roaming horses along Highway 99,” she said.

“This is a complex issue that impacts several jurisdictions and the Village of Pemberton appreciates the advocacy support expressed by MLA Sturdy in his speech during the BC Legislative Assembly.”

Canada is one of the world’s leading exporters of horse meat. According to Statistics Canada, approximately 2,600 Canadian horses were exported for slaughter in 2022, all of which ended up in Japan, at a total value of $19 million, according to an October CBC investigation. 

Sturdy said he is amenable to other positive options.

“I am open to any solutions, but I don’t see action,” he said.

The MLA added his farm is the epicentre of the issue, and he often has to chase horses out of his driveway.

“I have criticized government on this because nobody is willing to step up and actually take action,” he said. He encouraged nearby landowners to invest in proper fencing. “We fence everything in, but we are still dealing with this issue on a regular basis,” he said.

Questions about enforcement

Sturdy also raised the issue with Minister of Transportation, Rob Fleming, on March 11 at a Committee of Supply meeting. Fleming acknowledged the problem is unique to Pemberton.

“We’ve done some analysis, and the horses are obviously coming from farms,” he said. “These are farms that are poorly fenced and that are not containing their domestic animals. It’s a different response than a wildlife fencing response, where if we had wildlife coming into frequent collision with vehicles, we would look to our fencing program to resolve that.”

Fleming said that the ministry is working with private property owners and the SPCA. He also said that officials are considering Sturdy’s idea to perhaps reduce the speed limit on that stretch of highway. Other action being taken by the government includes putting up more signs in the area.

“We have ordered and are about to take delivery of advanced warning signage of horses on the road,” said Fleming. “We’ll be able to do the most good to let drivers know of potential hazards on the road.”

Sturdy then asked if further action could not be taken by the province. “Is there no enforcement role, or does that fall to the municipality?” he asked. “It is a complex jurisdiction and there are regional district lands as well as municipal lands and IR lands. There are horses wandering back and forth and up and down, so it’s not easy for any one entity to kind of look after this. Is there not a role for the province to play beyond just warning the public that they might run into a herd of horses?”

Fleming said the Ministry of Transportation only regulates horses with riders on them, as they are used as a source of transportation.

“When it comes to animals that are owned by a farmer, the agency or ministry with the most direct legislation responsibility and enforcement tools is actually the Ministry of Agriculture,” he said. “The Livestock Act obviously does have a number of conditions that have to be adhered to by somebody engaged in agricultural activity. The SPCA is involved right now in helping to determine the best way forward to stop this conflict between animals and horses, because they have responsibility to enforce that animals aren’t being put in harm’s way.”

Fleming also wondered if ICBC could be involved in seeking recoveries when horses have caused collisions and are known to be from a particular property.

He urged Sturdy to liaise with the Ministry of Agriculture. “I’m not sure whether they have active files on this situation, but they certainly do have the legislative tools to try to reduce and eliminate this from occurring on the highway,” said Fleming.

Murray Sinclair, spokesperson for B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, said it has posted signs on Highway 99 between Pemberton and Mount Currie warning motorists horses may be present on the highway.

"The ministry will be upgrading those signs to make them more visible and is also reviewing the potential of a reduced speed limit along the section of highway where horses are prevalent," he said. "The ministry works with other ministries and other governments and agencies to protect public safety, and is reviewing a request from the Village of Pemberton to see if more can be done to warn motorists."

Sinclair added "proper containment of horses and other domestic livestock is the responsibility of the owner." 

Senior public affairs officer, Dave Townsend, said the Ministry of Agriculture is aware of the situation, and is working with other ministries, agencies and local stakeholders in the community.

“At this time, we do not believe rounding up the herd for auction is a viable or desirable option,” he said. “The Ministry of Agriculture and Food is committed to continuing to work with the owner and the local community and to finding a long-term solution to this issue.”

Corporal James Gilmour said Pemberton RCMP is also continuing its efforts.

“We are working at finding a solution to this issue, but it is a complex issue, and the sheer size has made it even more difficult,” he said. “We are continuing to work to find a solution with our partners of MOTI, VOP, SPCA and Agriculture. This is not only an issue in Pemberton, but around the province as well.”

Pique also reached out to Chief Dean Nelson of the Lil’wat Nation, the Solicitor General, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, the Ministry of Forests, and the BC SPCA, and will update this story accordingly.