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Letting Wild Horses Run Free to Curb Wildfires

By Emily Haynes, The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Fire season in the American West is becoming longer and more dangerous because of climate change. Living in the wilderness along the Oregon and California border, animal-behavior scientists William E. Simpson II and Michelle Gough know fire danger well. But they’ve also found a solution to it: wild horses.

Simpson grew up around horses on a working ranch, but living among wild ones was a different experience.

“When I moved into the wilderness in 2014 and saw these wild horses, they were doing things I’d never seen horses do before,” he says. “They were managing the landscape in a way that made it more fire resistant.”

Bands of wild horses graze on grass, preventing it from overgrowing into fuel for wildfires. They scratch their flanks on tree trunks, knocking off the dead branches that flames scale like ladders during fires. And they reseed native plants through their manure.

Put simply: The free-roaming horses nurture the landscape. Simpson and other scientists point to geological records that show this once was the case across the American West, and it prevented the ruinous fires that now torch the region each year. But that mutually advantageous relationship changed when ranchers started pushing wild horses off their land.

Today, between 30,000 and 40,000 wild horses still roam free. Another 60,000 live in captivity after being herded by helicopters in mass roundups carried out by the Bureau of Land Management.

Through their nonprofit, Wild Horse Fire Brigade, Simpson and Gough want to relocate wild horses to 110 million acres of designated wilderness areas where there are currently few preventive fire measures and a lot of fire risk. “These are where we have our 5,000-year-old sequoias,” Simpson says.

Fire has always been a feature of the western landscape — sequoias can’t germinate their seeds without it — but free-roaming horses, Simpson says, could naturally limit dry grasses, dead tree limbs, and other fire fuel to keep those blazes in check.

Here, he photographs the whiskers of a wild Appaloosa horse.


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