A sheep farmer turned wildlife behavior researcher recently studied how wild horses could help curb wildfires in the American west. According to William E. Simpson II, the presence of horses in the wilderness could reduce the range and size of future wildfires.
Simpson studied the horses’ impact for years, finding that they are great at actually protecting natural resources in their environment. Most notably, their grazing habits cut down on the amount of brush and wildfire fuel in their area. Left to roam, they could clear out huge swaths of land prone to wildfires.
Additionally, in 2018, Simpson spent nine days on the fire line as a volunteer with the firefighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. At the time, they were fighting the Klamathon Fire. Simpson served as a local knowledge advisor. He shared that he saw significant breaks in the fire where he knew wild horses had been grazing. There, the horses had eaten the grass down to 2 to 3 inches over 500 acres in some places. The breaks in the fire allowed crews to set up equipment to beat back the flames.
“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,” Simpson told The State. “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 […] helped save the monument with CalFire.”
How Wild Horses Can Help Curb Wildfires in the West
In addition to eating the potential fire fuel down to almost nothing, the horses also itch their backs against dry, low-hanging limbs. The tree limbs break off, preventing them from catching the entire tree on fire. Low-hanging branches are known as “fire ladders,” says Simpson, because they act as a way for fire to essentially climb a tree. This way, they consume more trees and forests.
“So you remove those fire ladders and get the grass out — now you have a fire-resistant tree again,” said Simpson. “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.”
Because deer and elk, other animals that graze heavily, are being hunted or decimated by diseases like Chronic Wasting Disease, fires are getting out of control. The brush and tinder aren’t being cleared away by these animals, or by Indigenous practices. So, wildfires rage through forests and communities.
Simpson also founded the Wild Horse Fire Brigade. The goal is to bring more attention to the significant impact wild horses have on the landscape.
Ranchers Have Problems With Using Wild Horses for Natural Landscaping
There are some who oppose Simpson’s plan to humanely trap and release a band of wild horses in an area prone to wildfires. There’s a debate in the US about what to do with wild horses in general: most ranchers are opposed to wild horses because they take up valuable land that they’d use for livestock. The horses also use up natural resources on that land. Occasionally, ranchers and hunters kill the horses just because they don’t want them around.
Simpson’s plan is to release the horses only into areas where they can impact the land. When the horses have to compete with livestock for resources, they move on to other areas. This worries some people, considering that the horses may decimate resources in other communities. But, Simpson’s plan eliminates that competition, leading to positive impacts on the land and on wildfire management.
“The whole idea is let these guys do what they’ve done in nature for a long time, which is manage wildfire fuels,” said Simpson. “That’s what they’re really good at doing.”