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The hard life of a wild Sable Island horse:’Eking out a living on this sandbar’

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  • HALIFAX — Researchers studying the carcasses of Sable Island’s fabled wild horses have discovered many had unusual levels of parasites and sand, suggesting they are tougher than most horses, even as many died of starvation.

    A team from the University of Saskatchewan and Parks Canada performed necropsies on more than 30 dead animals during trips to the isolated sandbar about 160 kilometres off Nova Scotia in 2017 and 2018.

    “We showed up in 2017 not knowing whether there would be any dead horses to find,” said researcher Emily Jenkins.

    “Scientifically we really didn’t know anything about the causes of mortality in this population because the last work that was done was in the 1970s.”

    The horses have roamed there since the 18th century and become synonymous with the island’s romantic and untamed image.

    Jenkins said conditions on the wind-swept, 42-kilometre long island were particularly harsh in the early spring of 2017, and that had an effect on the horse population.

    “It was very hard on the horses,” she said. “When we got there they were taking shelter behind anything they could find.”

    With the help of Parks Canada, Jenkins said she and other University of Saskatchewan researchers were able to find 30 carcasses that were suitable for examination during their initial foray to the island.

    Jenkins said they estimated there were another 20 carcasses that were either unsuitable for examination or that were just too inaccessible to get to.

    She said the overall findings were “very similar” to a previous study carried out by graduate student Daniel Welsh in 1972.

    “The main finding was emaciation or starvation and hypothermia, especially for the young horses,” said Jenkins, who noted vegetation is sparse on Sable during that time of the year.

    The researchers found the yearlings in particular, had little or no reserves of body fat to rely on.

    “All of the young horses we looked at were just basically out of reserves,” Jenkins said. “They had nothing left, they were emaciated.”

    However, the adult animals, who would have higher social status and better access to the best grazing, were generally in better body condition and died of a combination of other causes.

    Jenkins said Sable Island’s omnipresent sand tends to grind down teeth, affecting nutrient intake, and also ends up in the horses’ system, blocking their gastrointestinal tract.

    “In several horses that we looked at there was quite a lot of sand. We were picking up the intestines and the stomach and saying ‘these weigh a tonne,’ because there was in many cases more sand than plant content.”

    Jenkins also noted that some pregnant mares had died while giving birth.

    The 2018 trip, meanwhile, focused more on looking for pathogens and diseases, and that’s where Jenkins said the researchers were able to find things such as respiratory and reproductive diseases including a parasite lungworm.

    She said, in fact, research over the last 10 years has turned up astounding levels of parasitic worms in these small horses, many of whom are no bigger than 14 hands long.  The average fecal egg count from the live horse study was 1,500 per gram.

    “I just about fell over because we call a high fecal egg count in a domestic horse 500 eggs per gram,” said Jenkins. “So the average Sable horse is walking around shedding three times more parasites than our domestic horses.”

    Jenkins said the horses’ genetic resistance to the parasites could render clues for horses in the domestic world, where veterinarians are “fighting a losing battle” to worms with a growing resistance to various treatments.

    The scientist said she believes domestic horses are dewormed too much to begin with, and the Sable research could help bear that out.

    “Look at what those guys are surviving with — massive levels of parasitism and no treatment. So we are probably overdoing it for most horses that are just companion animals.”

    Jenkins said the overall mortality rate in 2017 was about 10 per cent of the population, while the 2018 figure represented about one per cent, which is more the norm.

    She said the current population sits at around 500 horses, up from the 300 or so recorded in the 1970s.

    From a scientific perspective, Jenkins said it’s fascinating to see a system of untreated and unmanaged horses living in what amounts to their ancestral conditions.

    “But there’s the little girl in me who has always loved horses who can’t believe these horses are eking out a living on this little sandbar,” she said.

    Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press



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    Environment

    Soldiers deploy across Quebec after flood-caused sinkhole claims woman’s life

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  • MONTREAL — Canadian Armed Forces are deploying in three regions across Quebec, officials say, as rising water levels continue to wreak havoc on the province after claiming a life.

    About 200 soldiers were poised to start filling sandbags and carrying out evacuations in the Outaouais and Mauricie regions Saturday night, with 400 more troops set to deploy there as well as Laval on Sunday, said Brig.-Gen. Jennie Carignan.

    The soldiers are “extremely well-trained and prepared” for the flood fight, Carignan said. “They are used to doing it.”

    Quebec’s public safety minister urged residents throughout the day to stay safe and cooperate with authorities.

    “Be careful, be vigilant…please,” Genevieve Guilbault said alongside Carignan at Canadian Forces Base Longue-Pointe in Montreal Saturday evening.

    As of Saturday night, turgid rivers had resulted in 903 flooded residences, 251 isolated residences and 317 evacuees across the province, according to Urgence Quebec.

    Eight major floods were identified by Urgence Quebec on Saturday evening, threatening thousands of Quebecers: the Chaudiere River at Saint-Georges, Saint-Joseph, Scott and Vallee-Jonction, all in the Beauce region; Lake of Two Mountains at Rigaud and Quesnel Bay; and the Beaurivage River in Levis in the Chaudiere-Appalaches region.

    Guilbault also offered her condolences to the family of Louise Seguin Lortie, who died early Saturday morning after driving her car into a massive sinkhole caused by flooding in the Outaouais region, according to police.

    The accident left the 72-year-old’s sedan upside down in a swollen stream after rising river levels swept away part of the road overnight, police said.

    Sgt. Martin Fournel of the MRC des Collines police said a pair of witnesses parked near the washout tried unsuccessfully to warn the driver as she approached.

    “That lady, who was driving by herself on that road, fell into a sinkhole basically because of the flooding. There was a culvert that was not there anymore, so the road was cut in half and she was not able to brake and avoid the accident,” Fournel told The Canadian Press.

    The woman was taken to hospital but died shortly after, he said.

    The accident occurred at about 3:30 a.m. in the Municipality of Pontiac, about 30 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.

    Pontiac, which sits along the Ottawa River, is one of at least four municipalities in the Outaouais region to declare states of emergency, along with Gatineau, Saint-Andre-Avellin and Val-des-Monts. Trois-Rivieres is also under a state of emergency.

    Rigaud, west of the Island of Montreal, saw at least 68 evacuations, as residents feared a repeat of 2017, when record flooding forced thousands from their homes.

    William Bradley, whose house in Rigaud sits on a street that hugs the Ottawa River, said he filled several hundred city-supplied sandbags this week. He’s stacked them four-high around doors and windows, wrapping the makeshift barriers in polyethylene.

    “It’s still coming up, coming up,” said Bradley, 72.

    He said flooding two years ago caused about $100,000 in damage to the ceramics equipment he stores at home for his small business.

    “We’ll stay as long as we have gas for the generator. We’ve got a boat — my daughter bought a boat and a motor for us in 2017,” he said. “By the way, never buy a boat during a flood season. It gets pricey.”

    More than 45 millimetres of rain fell on the Montreal area between Thursday and Saturday, according to Environment Canada. Rainfall warnings have been lifted, but water levels were already high and are expected to rise sharply over the weekend with warm temperatures and snowmelt runoff.

    The City of Laval, just north of Montreal, said in a statement it had distributed sandbags to 900 homes and knocked on 550 doors to make sure people were safe as more than 1,500 homes and business remained under flood watch.

    Quebec City and the Gaspe Peninsula can expect up to 30 millimetres of rainfall this weekend, said Environment Canada meteorologist Andre Cantin.

    “That will help the snow to melt again, and we do not expect the river will be able to go down for at least 48 hours,” he said Saturday.

    Guilbault has said the province will allow stores — usually closed on Easter Sunday — to remain open this weekend so residents can stock up on supplies.

    Some of the worst flooding Saturday appeared to surge through the Beauce region south of Quebec City, where 868 homes were flooded and 94 people evacuated as of 3 p.m., according to an Urgence Quebec bulletin.

    In Beauceville, about 90 kilometres south of Quebec City, officials have asked the Canadian Armed Forces for assistance with evacuations ordered by the municipality.

    Earlier this week, the Chaudiere River burst its banks and flooded a large part of downtown. Officials called it the worst flooding since 1971, with 230 homes and businesses flooded.

    In Saint-Raymond, about 60 kilometres northwest of the provincial capital, 24 seniors in three residences have been moved to higher ground as the Ste-Anne River continues to rise.

    A local dam gave way Saturday, said Mayor Daniel Dion, prompting concerns about flooding. “The problem today is that there is a lot of ice. If they clog our channels the water will have no space to circulate and that’s where it overflows,” he said.

    In the Mauricie region, Canadian Armed Forces are focusing on Trois-Rivieres as well as the municipalities of Becancour, Louiseville, Maskinonge and Yamachiche.

    Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press



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    Environment

    Quebec officials urge caution after flood-caused sinkhole claims woman’s life

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  • MONTREAL — Quebec’s deputy premier and public safety minister is urging those affected by flooding to exercise extreme caution and vigilance as rising water levels continue to wreak havoc on the province.

    “Do not take unnecessary risks, please,” Genevieve Guilbault said at the Ti-Oui Snack Bar in Saint-Raymond on Saturday.

    Regional liaison officers for the Canadian Armed Forces are deployed in five districts and prepared to assist residents, she said: Outaouais; Montreal, Laurentians and Lanaudiere; Monteregie and Estrie; Quebec City; and Chaudiere-Appallaches.

    Tragedy struck early Saturday morning when a woman in her 70s died after driving her car into a massive sinkhole caused by flooding in western Quebec, police said.

    The accident left the woman’s sedan upside down in a swollen stream after rising river levels swept away part of the road in the Outaouais region overnight.

    Sgt. Martin Fournel of the MRC des Collines police said witnesses parked near the washout tried unsuccessfully to warn the driver as she approached.

    “That lady, who was driving by herself on that road, fell into a sinkhole basically because of the flooding. There was a culvert that was not there anymore, so the road was cut in half and she was not able to brake and avoid the accident,” Fournel told The Canadian Press.

    The woman was taken to hospital but pronounced dead soon after, he said.

    The accident occurred at about 3:30 a.m. in the Municipality of Pontiac, about 30 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.

    Pontiac, which sits along the Ottawa River, is one of at least three municipalities in the Outaouais region to declare states of emergency, along with Saint-Andre-Avellin and Val-des-Monts. The city of Trois-Rivieres is also under a state of emergency.

    In Beauceville, about 90 kilometres south of Quebec City, officials have asked the Canadian Armed Forces for assistance, with military vehicles en route to help with evacuations ordered by the municipality.

    Earlier this week, the Chaudiere River burst its banks and flooded a large part of downtown. Officials called it the worst flooding since 1971, with 230 homes and businesses flooded.

    In Saint-Raymond, about 60 kilometres northwest of the provincial capital, 24 seniors in three residences have been moved to higher ground as the Ste-Anne River continues to rise.

    A local dam gave way Saturday, said Mayor Daniel Dion, prompting concerns about flooding.

    “The problem today is that there is a lot of ice. If they clog our channels the water will have no space to circulate and that’s where it overflows,” he said.

    Dion said he expects the high-water mark to come Sunday evening.

    Four major floods have already been identified by Urgence Quebec: the Chaudiere River in Saint-Georges; Saint-Joseph and Vallee-Jonction in Beauce; and Deux-Montagnes Lake in Rigaud.

    As of noon Saturday, there were 72 flooded residences, 53 isolated residences and 197 evacuees across the province, according to the most recent Urgence Quebec bulletin.

    The most affected areas are Beauce — south of Quebec City — and Rigaud, west of the Island of Montreal.

    Provincial police are checking up on residents door to door in Beauceville and Rigaud, where the Surete du Quebec (SQ) have set up command posts, said Sgt. Marie-Michele Moore.

    About 40 millimetres of rain have fallen on the Montreal area since Thursday, with five to 10 millimetres more expected Saturday, according to Environment Canada. Rainfall warnings have been lifted, but water levels were already high and were expected to rise sharply with warm temperatures and snowmelt runoff.

    Guilbault has said the province will also allow stores — usually closed on Easter Sunday — to remain open this weekend so residents can stock up on supplies.

    Thomas Blanchet, a spokesman for the province’s public safety department, said residents should be ready for a sharp spike in water levels that could come quickly, and he implored them to follow the instructions of local officials.

    In Laval, just north of Montreal, officials said some 1,500 homes and businesses were under flood watch. In Montreal, Mayor Valerie Plante toured various parts of the city under flood watch.

    Plante said the boroughs were well prepared, having learned lessons from record floods two years ago.

    “We’re putting in all our energy, but in the end Mother Nature decides,” Plante said.

    In a statement, the City of Laval said it had distributed sandbags to 900 homes and knocked on 550 doors to make sure people were safe, as concern rises along with water levels in the Thousand Islands and Prairies rivers.

    Quebec City and the Gaspe Peninsula can expect up to 30 millimetres of rainfall this weekend, said Environment Canada meteorologist Andre Cantin.

    “That will help the snow to melt again, and we do not expect the river will be able to go down for at least 48 hours,” he said Saturday morning.

    The Canadian Press




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