Can Wild Horses Help Prevent Wildfires in the West?
California naturalist and mustang advocate William Simpson sees a solution in the Wild Horse Fire Brigade.
By: Kim Izzo | July 14, 2021
Many Canadians were shaken by recent wildfires in BC following a historic heat wave. The entire town of Lytton was turned to ash and lives and livelihoods tragically lost. The effect of climate change on our forests cannot be overstated. Year after year we watch south of the border as the catastrophic wildfires destroy millions of acres in California with substantial loss of life and property, as well as economic impacts on business and real estate values. Then there’s the human cost as smoke damages lungs, causing short- and long-term health issues for residents.
An out-of-the-box solution is gaining traction and it involves horses. Called the Wild Horse Fire Brigade Plan, it calls for wild horses (a.k.a. mustangs), to be reintroduced to American forest land to graze away the grass and brush that fuels much of the forest fires. Another benefit to the plan is the reduction of conflict between advocates of wild horses and ranchers, whose cattle compete with the horses for grassland.
The man behind the plan is Northern Californian and naturalist William E Simpson II, who conducted a seven-year study on the effect large herbivores would have on wildfire prevention. Simpson came to the idea based on other forestry studies that show when there is an adequate herbivore population in the landscape, you have both a reduction in the frequency and intensity of wildfires.
According to statistics found in various studies, each horse that enters into a wildfire-sensitive area will consume about 5.5 tons of grass and brush per year, and at the same time, the animal reseeds the native plants, which controls erosion. All of that is part of the natural process that has evolved over millions of years.
So instead of spending $100 million per year in tax dollars to round up, warehouse and feed wild horses held captive, the government immediately saves the $100 million by giving the wild horses a job in wildfire ‘fuels reduction’ in designated ‘critical wilderness’ areas, which must be protected from catastrophic wildfire at all costs. Simpson cites the Wilderness Act of 1964, whereby Congress designated 111 million acres of federal wildlands as official wilderness; much of that landscape is considered critical.
A family band of native species American wild horses is seen symbiotically reducing wildfire fuels off a forest floor, making the trees more fire resistant. (Photo: William E. Simpson II)
In this wildfire fuels reduction role, wild horses would symbiotically mitigate wildfire fuels at the rate of approximately 400,000 tons of grass and brush annually, and by targeting critical wilderness, these pristine areas would be made more fire-resistant.
Before white settlers overtook the land, when Native Americans used prescribed burns to manage the landscape, there were approximately 100 million more large-bodied carnivores, including deer and buffalo, than there is now. Back then, these herbivores ate their way through 273 metric tons of grass and brush, thus reducing the so-called one-hour fuels that act as kindling. One-hour fuels include grass and leaves and refers to how quickly the moisture in these “fuels” can change within 60 minutes, depending on rain and temperature. Simpson helped draft a bill to present to the US government, whose Bureau of Land Management (BLM) currently oversees the thousands of horses that roam the American west ‒ thousands of whom are kept in pens.
According to a draft bill, “In these remote areas with difficult terrain, suppression costs are the highest due to the need for aerial suppression using jets and helicopters costing as much as $1M per hour. The Plan involves the redisposition of native species American wild horses from Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) holding corrals into such areas where each wild horse so deployed provides $72,000 over its life span in fuel abatement services based on comparable analysis.”
Finding a solution to devastating wildfires is an urgent concern, but the Wild Horse Fire Brigade also helps to save the mustangs by giving them a job. “Wild horses regain their true status of being ‘wild and free’ by resuming their evolutionary roles as keystone herbivores in designated wilderness areas that have not be altered by centuries of livestock production, which has resulted in the virtual elimination of the co-evolved and necessary predators of wild equids,” he explains. “There is about 250 million acres of wilderness in America. Of that, about 111 million acres is designated as critical wilderness, where livestock production is impractical for many cost-related reasons. In these areas rich with water and forage, which still contain reasonable populations of the co-evolved natural predators of equids (mountain lions, bears, wolves and coyotes), wild horses no longer need to be artificially managed; their populations are held in equilibrium via natural selection, which also strengthens their genetics.”
The idea seems to be gaining traction and time will tell what happens with the draft bill and if the BLM will make such a shift in its management of the mustangs.
But one thing is certain: during the course of his own study, Simpson became a passionate admirer of the horses. “Living among and studying wild horses in a wilderness area, I have come to realize that wild horses actually have a highly-evolved social-structure, which in many ways resembles a society,” Simpson said. “I have seen and documented the bonds of love between family members and friends, as well as wild horses grieving over the loss of family members and friends. And I have witnessed and enjoyed how they benefit the ecosystems and the flora and fauna where they live.
“For me, they represent the spirit of our natural world. I am humbled and inspired when a mighty wild stallion from the mountains, a king in his own right, decides to share breath with me, an honor that is usually reserved between members of their kind.”