Horse News

Collapse Of Terrestrial Herbivore Populations, Wildfires, And Ocean Acidification – Is There A Link?

By: William E. Simpson II

In this article, I put forth a novel thesis that; there is connection between the depletion of large-bodied native species herbivores, wildfires, and accelerating ocean acidification (‘OA’).

Let’s first examine what is believed to be currently happening with our atmosphere and oceans in regard to the release and absorption of carbon related man-caused (anthropogenic) pollution:

1.    When the percentage of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) increases due to the release of greenhouse gases from anthropogenic and/or natural sources, the oceans of the world absorb more CO2 and this decreases the pH (acidifies) of sea water. Any decrease in the pH of sea water that leads to acidification has serious adverse effects on all marine life. In fact, the oceans have been termed as ‘carbon sinks’ due to their ability to absorb carbon compounds into solution. The image from below generally depicts the impact of ocean acidification (OA).

Ocean acidification is already impacting many ocean species, especially organisms like oysters and corals that make hard shells and skeletons by combining calcium and carbonate from seawater. However, as ocean acidification increases, available carbonate ions (CO32-) bond with excess hydrogen, resulting in fewer carbonate ions available for calcifying organisms to build and maintain their shells, skeletons, and other calcium carbonate structures. If the pH gets too low, shells and skeletons can even begin to dissolve. ~ NOAA

The chart below is from an article written by Dr Jamie Shutler, associate professor in earth observation at the University of Exeter, and Prof Andy Watson, Royal Society research professor at the University of Exeter. The descending lines in the chart above indicate that the ocean is absorbing more CO2.

Charts above also show atmosphere-ocean CO2 exchange for a) the globe, and b) for northern and southern hemispheres for 1992-2018. The colored lines show nine different interpolation schemes for CO2 exchange, and the shading indicates one- and two-standard deviations of the nine methods around the mean (thick black line). Source: Watson et al. (2020).

1.    Anthropogenic sources for releases of carbon compounds, primarily CO2, are impacting atmospheric chemistry, which in-turn affects ocean chemistry.

2.    Wildfires produce great quantities of CO2, as do controlled burns to a lesser extent. And over the past decade, CO2 production from wildfires seem to have outpaced anthropogenic produced CO2 for power production.

Excerpts from a Washington Post Article:

“Two scientists estimate separately for The Energy 202 that the fires in California this year through mid-September burned enough forest to put about 90 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas, into the air. For perspective, that’s some 30 million tons more than the total CO2 emissions from providing power to the entire state.”

“Guido van der Werf, a wildfire emissions expert at Vrije University in Amsterdam who with Andela helps maintain the Global Fire Emissions Database, agreed that his estimate of 90 million metric tons released by fires burning up and down the state from Northern California to rural San Diego County is rough.”

“But one thing is clear: “What is pretty certain is that this year beats the previous record in the satellite record (starting in 1997) … by a large margin,” van der Werf wrote in an email.”

3.    Recent scientific research suggests that when large-bodied herbivores that consume grass and brush are depleted, these key wildfire fuels (grass and brush), which kindle and carry fire to other heavier fuels, become prodigiously overgrown. This is a particularly difficult problem for wilderness areas where access due to remoteness and difficult mountainous terrain make ground fuels reductions very difficult and costly.

The illogical use of fire (prescribed and controlled burns) to address grass and brush fuels is nothing more than a band-aid being used to address poor wildlife and natural resource management. The occurrence of prodigious excess grass and brush fuels coincides with the observed collapse of the herbivory in many areas around the world, including in the western United States.

In some cases, we find that governmental agencies including the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have employed the use of what is termed ‘prescribed burns’, which in light of certain facts are, contradicted burns.

Santa Fe New Mexican:

“May 10, 2000, was the day the wind-driven Cerro Grande Fire roared into Los Alamos, destroying 235 homes and displacing more than 400 people. Homes would still be burning five days later, though no one would perish. The monstrous wildfire, which began as a prescribed burn ignited by federal crews but raged out of control, also spread to Los Alamos National Laboratory’s forested lands, burning dozens of structures and threatening a facility that housed radioactive material.”

These attempts to manage grass and brush wildfire fuels in wilderness areas via burning are also sometimes termed ‘controlled burns’, in some cases actually become deadly uncontrolled burns. These man-created fires are also producing large quantities of CO2 as well as other toxic carbon compounds, which like the smoke from wildfires, adversely affects the health of humans and wildlife.

4.    We know for a fact that virtually all native species large-bodied herbivores are in global decline. In the western states of North America, census data for native species deer (cervids) and wild horses (equids) show that both species are in severe decline, with populations that are a fraction of what they had been just 50-years ago. In California, the deer population has collapsed, declining about 2-million animals over the past 5-decades.

And at a time when more native species large-bodied herbivores are desperately needed on wilderness landscapes for wildfire fuels reduction, wild horses in the state of California, which number less than 5,000 total animals, are being rounded-up by the BLM and the USFS and held off-range at great cost to taxpayers.

5.    Scientific study strongly suggests that in areas where large-bodied herbivore populations have been depleted, catastrophic wildfire evolves.

The correlation and timing of the depletion of California’s deer and wild horses and the genesis of the catastrophic wildfire in California (and other western states with the same issues) over the past 15-years supports the study by Professor William J. Ripple:

‘Collapse of the world’s largest herbivores’: “By altering the quantity and distribution of fuel supplies, large herbivores can shape the frequency, intensity, and spatial distribution of fires across a landscape”. 

The foregoing correlations between the collapse of populations of large-bodied herbivores and resulting prodigious excesses of grass and brush fuels, which are now subjected to warmer climate conditions, results in an increase in both the frequency and intensity of catastrophic wildfire.

Arguably, annual catastrophic wildfires are now producing more CO2 into the atmosphere than the burning of fossil-fuels by mankind. Automotive and industrial CO2 pollutants being produced into our atmosphere are now arguably being overshadowed by the billions of tons of CO2 being produced ever year by catastrophic wildfires around the world.

In order to truly comprehend the scope of the wildfire CO2 pollution that is affecting the atmosphere and subsequently our planet’s oceans, this general overview of the CO2 production from wildfires in some areas during 2019 is an eye-opener (data from Bloomberg Green and Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service/ECMWF)

a)    Australia’s fires emitted 409,700,000 metric tons of CO2 in 2019

b)    Arctic fires emitted 182,000,000 metric tons of CO2 in 2019

c)    Brazilian Amazon fires emitted 392,000,000 metric tons of CO2 in 2019

d)    Indonesia’s fires emitted 360,000,000 metric tons of CO2 in 2019

From Bloomberg Green:

“These enormous blazes—some the size of a small country—aren’t just destroying native forests and vulnerable animal species. They’re also releasing billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, potentially accelerating global warming and leading to even more fires.”

In Conclusion:

It seems certain that ocean acidification (OA) is being accelerated by CO2 production from the evolution of catastrophic wildfires that are now emitting CO2 (and other carbon compounds) on a magnitude of billions-of-tons annually.

However, the OA that is occurring from wildfire smoke (CO2) could arguably be slowed by reestablishing flourishing populations of native species herbivores into ecologically and economically appropriate wilderness areas, where they would naturally reduce wildfire fuels.

There is a Plan and a proposed draft legislative outline for a bill to accomplish the reestablishment of native species American wild horses in ecologically and economically appropriate wilderness areas. That Plan is called the Wild Horse Fire Brigade’.

Wild Horse Fire Brigade is an important first step towards a sensible cost-effective solution for reducing both the frequency and intensity of catastrophic wildfires.

Wild Horse Fire Brigade can initially and immediately be undertaken via the re-wilding of the approximate 50,000 native species American wild horses currently held in captivity. These native species American wild horses have been rounded-up by the BLM and are being held in corrals by the BLM at great cost to American taxpayers and to the environment since they cannot engage in their evolved natural roles as symbiotic keystone herbivores reducing wildfire fuels.

The aforementioned action could be cost-effectively augmented via the humane relocation of native species American wild horses from areas where wild horses and livestock are commingled and in conflict, and into ecologically and economically appropriate wilderness areas, as outlined in this published article:

3 replies »

  1. A very good article that directly links the removal of large herbivores, both wild horses and burros, as well as deer and other grazers to the increase in dry grasses and vegetation that are involved with wild fires, whether defined as controlled burnings, or out of control burning. Just as much it is directly related to the increase of ocean acidification as a result of increased CO2 output into the atmosphere. Another aspect that can be touched on is that the disruption of the oceans salinity, pH, and temperature parameters, have resulted in increased coral reef bleaching. Coral reef ecosystems are one of the major areas where uptake of CO2 occurs, and I might add, just as important O2 production occurs. This is as a result of a symbiotic relationship that goes on between the coral animal and its photosynthetic algal counterpart. This dinoflagelate that goes into what is called an encysted or nonmotile phase taking up residence in the translucent tissues of the coral. What occurs is that this algal counterpart takes up CO2 from the surrounding seawater, to produce oxygen released into the water and subsequently back into the atmosphere. Just as much, the sugars produced in photosynthesis, as well as amino acids and proteins that are recycled from nitrogenous waste from the coral are translocated back to the coral host. Much more CO2 binds with water to form carbonic acid, a weak acid no doubt but quickly breaks down, allowing the coral to bind Carbon dioxide with Calcium cations to form Calcium Carbonate incorporated into the exoskeleton of reef forming corals at rates that are 10 times those without the symbiotic counterpart. Although there is much more detail that could go into this, what is of importance is that the disruption of the narrow parameters of this symbiotic relationship, in terms of salinty, pH, as well as temperature, along with elevation of sea levels, have caused major bleaching episodes. The lose, in essence of this symbiotic relationship, due to this disruption, results in the departure of one of the major, if not the major area of CO2 uptake in the world. This does not even get into Oxygen production, from this photosynthetic relationship. Many people don’t realize the degree of carbon dioxide uptake and oxygen production that occurs in these coral reef ecosystems. Add to this the terrestial deforestation, increased wildfires due to major herbivore removal including wild horses, and we have a major greenhouse gas problem. We don’t live above and separate from the environment and its wildlife, whether it is microscopic or major mammalian herbivores or predatores. We are a part of it and must exist as though we are a part of it. The earth has a delicate balance. Artificial alterations due to finite thinking have caused a major disruption.. Nature is dynamic and can keep itself in balance. We must respect this and allow nature to be what it is. Are we too far gone ? From one standpoint we can start by releasing the wild horses and burros in captivity back to the wild where they can fulfill their ecological niche, and restore these wild areas. Secondly we can stop the roundups, once and for all, as well and remove the BLM and USFS from overseeing them. Nature speaks and teaches. Are we listening


  2. Excellent comment on an excellent article.
    Are we learning ?
    Will we act in time ?
    3rd in a series about Greta Thunberg on PBS Wed. 8PM EDT.


  3. Where is the accounting for the introduction of millions of domestic herbivores (cattle and sheep) onto our public lands, for most of the year and certainly most of the growing season in our western states?


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