Knowing Naŝlhiny (Horse), Understanding the Land: Free-Roaming Horses in the Culture and Ecology of the Brittany Triangle and Nemiah Valley
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Free-roaming horses (Equus ferus caballus L.) – also called wild or feral – have been present in the Chilcotin region of British Columbia, Canada and part of Tsilhqot’in First Nations’ culture for over 250 years. The horses, naŝlhiny in Tsilhqot’in, have also been a focal point for controversy and power struggles over land use in the same region for at least 120 years. Recently, the wild horses of the Brittany Triangle (called Tachelach’ed, near the Nemiah Valley in the territory of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation) have been used by local First Nations and some non-governmental organizations as an iconic symbol to gain support for wilderness conservation. To some other residents and government agencies, free-roaming horses are invasive pests that threaten forage availability for cattle, range health, and native wildlife habitat. Little peer-reviewed research exists to elucidate the actual ecological impacts and social relationships of free-roaming horses in the particular ecological, cultural and political context of the Brittany Triangle, or to support management decisions concerning the horses. This research explores how scientific analysis, local knowledge, and socio-cultural perspectives regarding the ecology and cultural role of free-roaming horses in the Brittany Triangle can be integrated to inform conservation planning and land use management. The primary objectives were: 1) to determine and quantify the species of vegetation where horses are feeding; 2) to document local socio-cultural knowledge and perceptions of free-roaming horses; and 3) to determine how ecological information and socio-cultural perspectives can be integrated to inform conservation planning and land use management. This transdisciplinary, mixed-methods study took an exploratory, adaptive approach over six years of site visits, including two preparatory field visits (2006-2007), four field seasons over two years of formal data collection (2008-2009), and two follow-up visits (2010-2011). A line-point intersect method and statistical analysis were used to assess plant community composition and variance in eight sample sites that are grazing habitat of free-roaming horses. Qualitative research involved literature review, participant observation among host communities, semi-structured key informant interviews, and extensive observation of free-roaming horses and other wildlife in the Brittany Triangle. Results demonstrate that the free-roaming horses are part of a social-ecological complex, one of many disturbance factors in a system with multiple drivers of ecological and social change. Grazing and disturbance of vegetation by horses are patchy and heterogeneous in distribution, but no statistically significant difference was found in plant community composition or heights between sample sites. Qualitative research demonstrates that while the horses are currently remote from much human contact, they and the landscape are part of a rich history of interaction with people in Chilcotin society and cultures, particularly in Xeni Gwet’in and other Tsilhqot’in communities. Disagreements over free-roaming horses reveal deeper differences in ways of knowing that underlie management actions, including differing perceptions of “the wild” in relation to humans, and a history of power struggles over land use between First Nations and government authorities from colonial and settler cultures. As well, vegetation communities in sample meadow habitats did not show signs of ecologically significant structural variance or ubiquitous damage on a spatial scale large enough to warrant management intervention in horse populations within the Brittany Triangle at this time. Local knowledge and livelihood practices among Xeni Gwet’in and other local people have functioned as an informal management system for free-roaming horses in the Brittany Triangle and Nemiah Valley. Broadly, this study suggests a partial rather than full integration of diverse ways of knowing may sometimes be desirable in order to maintain the epistemological and contextual depth and richness of different knowledge systems. Effective integration of diverse ways of knowing in management warrants not only the integration of information into knowledge products (i.e. reports, studies, proposals, etc.), but also the equitable inclusion of knowledge holders in processes and decisions. Narrative can be an effective means of conveying complexity in situations of conflict or controversy. This research also finds that a recognition of the agency that wild animals and the land itself have in relationships with humans, and the sense of collective responsibility towards the land and wild animals are two elements that indigenous perspectives can contribute to management and planning frameworks. This research indicates that it is possible and desirable to maintain a population of free-roaming horses in the Brittany Triangle as part of a functional social ecological system, in ways that are appropriate to, and expressive of the culture, identity and livelihood practices of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation. The success of localized stewardship and management depends on: 1) culturally-appropriate means of limiting horse populations including maintaining predator populations; 2) defining management zones based on ecosystems, political and cultural boundaries, and horse sub-populations; 3) basing actions and decisions on systemic, not segmented, ecological indicators; 4) encouraging people to spend time on the land moving cattle more frequently on grazed open range; 5) cultivating stewardship and monitoring activities; 6) including socio-cultural values and goals in management objectives; 7) recognizing diverse people and ways of knowing in land use and management decisions; and 8) encouraging traditional activities as part of dynamic and changing local livelihoods.