BY BROOKE BAITINGER
One man’s extensive research into wild horse behavior suggests their presence in the wilderness may help cut down on the size and intensity of wildfires in the western U.S.
William E. Simpson II believes the equines could be a critical component in the fight against deadly wildfires.
He’s studied their impact over years and found that wild horses are excellent stewards of natural resources in the wilderness. Their grazing habits alone cut down considerably on the amount of brush in a given area, which would act as a fuel in the event of a wildfire.
Simpson, a sheep rancher turned animal behavior researcher and conservationist, said in an interview with McClatchy News that he’s seen it work in action.
In 2018, he says he spent nine days as a volunteer on the fire-line with firefighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as they battled the Klamathon Fire.
As he served as a local knowledge advisor, he noticed significant fire breaks in areas where he knew wild horses roamed. The herds had grazed the grass down to 2-3 inches in 500-acre swaths in some areas, which made it possible for firefighters to set up equipment and station personnel there to beat back the flames, he said.
“It was a safe area for them to get in front of the fire, and go toe to toe with it safely. And it stopped it,” he said. “It was really important because they saved a national treasure — the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. It was at risk, and the wild horses here actually and documentedly helped save the monument with CalFire.”
That’s when he started to take a vested interest in how the wild horses could affect the land, for the better, he said.
He learned that because horses use trees as a shelter, they graze on the lush grass that grows at the base of trees. They also brush their itchy backs along the low-hanging dry limbs, breaking them off.
That process can make trees more fire resistant, he said. The low hanging branches are known as fire ladders, because during a wildfire they reach down into the grass below and send fire climbing up the tree. In a forest, the trees can quickly become a wall of match sticks that go up in flames.
“So you remove those fire ladders and get the grass out — now you have a fire resistant tree again,” he said. “I started putting all this together and realizing how the collapse of our herbivory, deer and elk, was contributing to stronger, more out-of-control fires.”
He founded the Wild Horse Fire Brigade to share his findings with others. He’s worked with filmmakers on documentaries about the important role horses have on natural landscapes and preventing destructive fires from turning forests into ash.
Simpson says the horses co-evolved with the flora over hundreds of years. Their dung completes the plant life cycle, meaning their presence alone can replenish native plants and grasses, which are essential for pollinators and other fauna, he says.
COMPLICATIONS IN USING WILD HORSES FOR WILDFIRES
Simpson says he has a plan that could help reestablish this natural process by reintroducing wild horses to areas that need protection. The plan is relatively simple: humanely bait and trap an entire family band of horses, in an effort to maintain their important social structures. From there, they could be taken to natural areas where they can roam free, grazing down the grass, living under tall trees, and thus returning balance to the ecosystem to prevent wildfires.
However, there’s a fraught debate in the U.S. about what to do with wild horses. Ranchers say horses use up natural resources on the lands where they raise their livestock.
Sometimes, horses turn up dead in natural areas, targeted by people who don’t want them around.
While the horses are a bit more popular with the public at large, some still say they worry about the horses venturing into new territories and possibly trampling resources there.
That recently happened in California when horses from the White Mountains on the rural border with Nevada started pushing west into communities there, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The U.S. government, ranchers and animal rights activists are at odds about the best way to handle wild horse populations.
Federal officials routinely round up wild horses into massive holding pens, which can break up their family bonds. Some receive contraception and are released back into the wild. Still, some are auctioned off to the highest bidder, where they can end up going to slaughter in Mexico or Canada. A July report from advocacy group American Wild Horse Campaign found that since 2019, 840 horses and burros had been auctioned off and eventually sold to slaughterhouses, according to E&E News.
Simpson said his plan would eliminate the need for the costly round ups and would place horses in areas where they can positively impact the land instead of competing for resources on land they share with livestock. With that arrangement, ranchers would kill any of the horses’ natural co-evolved predators because they threaten their livestock and their business, Simpson said.
Because he came from a ranching background, he says he understands the pressures ranchers face and how wild horses can seem like a nuisance to their livelihood. He thinks his plan would end the war between livestock ranchers, the government, and wild horse activists that advocate for the horses’ freedom.
“The whole idea is let these guys do what they’ve done in nature for a long time, which is manage wildfire fuels. That’s what they’re really good at doing,” he said. “You put them up in the wilderness, and then we reduce the fire as well. So the horses get to live a free and happy life, we reduce fire, and complete plant and animal life cycles. And then guess what? The byproduct of all that is the ranchers actually get the grazing they want.”
Simpson blames mismanagement for a string of recent wild horse deaths in states like Arizona, where multiple members of a cherished herd were found shot to death in a national forest earlier in October.
“You catch one guy, there’ll be another guy right after him,” Simpson said. “If they’re not wanted, there’s places we can put them where it’s actually better for them.
“Horses can be a problem if they’re in the wrong spot, there’s no doubt about that. But if they’re in the right spot, they’re a blessing to everything.”
Original article source: https://www.sacbee.com/news/nation-world/national/article267475488.html