Horse Health

Wild Horses Can Help Solve Two Critical Problems: Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and Wildfire

Myopic land management perspectives come with a very expensive price tag

A small herd of wild horses is seen reducing wildfire fuels in a wilderness area. Photo: William E. Simpson II

A lack of holistic natural resource and land management oversight may very well result in the collapse of the American livestock industry as a result of the growing epidemic of Chronic Wasting Disease (‘CWD’) in cervids (deer, elk, etc.).

CWD can also infect livestock! If any U.S. cattle become infected with ‘Mad Cow Disease’, which is what CWD is called in cattle, American consumers will stop buying all beef.
We saw how just a small outbreak of Mad Cow Disease lead to hard times for the American beef prices.
“(Reuters) – U.S. ranchers and processors lost almost $11 billion in revenue between 2004 and 2007 after major importers barred U.S. beef following the discovery of mad cow disease in the United States, according to a government report issued on Tuesday.”
This recent peer-reviewed CDC article states that:
Dubbed the “zombie” deer disease, experts have warned that the consumption of deer meat infected with chronic wasting disease (CWD) may lead to the disease spreading to humans within the next few years
Given that the CDC primarily focuses on disease in humans, it’s easy to understand why they MISSED the implications that such transference of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is more likely into Cattle and Sheep herds, which are commingled with cervids (deer, elk, etc.) across the public and private grazing lands in America!
When CWD infects cattle it is called ‘Mad Cow’ or ‘BSE’; in sheep it’s called ‘scrapes’. It is fatal in all cases in both animals and humans and there is no known vaccine or treatment.
Also what is missed by existing public land management:  Wild Horses (horses) which can mitigate wildfire fuels in America’s 110-Million acres of ‘critical wilderness’ are resistant to Chronic Wasting Disease!
Leading science suggests that wild horses mitigate the spread of CWD by reducing the grass and brush vectors that carry the prions (CWD) that are thought to reside on vegetative materials and into the mouths of other susceptible herbivores. SEE REFS BELOW
Wild horses have shown they are resistant to CWD. Their resistance to CWD surely is an evolutionary genetic trait that has manifest due to their co-evolving with CWD over millennia on the North American landscape. Cattle and sheep are an imported species from the African continent, which may be germane in their susceptibility to CWD.
It’s not a matter of if, but when, CWD spreads to the livestock grazing in areas that are frequented by cervids.
And when Mad Cow disease and/or Scrapies hits the livestock industry, it will spell financial disaster for the livestock industry across all sectors; including grazing on public or private lands where cervids are commingled with livestock.
This outbreak of CWD spells financial disaster for the livestock industry.
The plan, ‘Wild Horse Fire Brigade‘ offers an immediate partial solution at no cost to taxpayers or the livestock industry.
Generally speaking, deer (cervids) have the highest population densities in designated ‘critical wilderness areas’, and it can be expected that the rate of exposure and transference of CWD would be highest in such areas.
By introducing wild horses from BLM and USFS off-range holding areas and into such critical wilderness areas, according to science, wild horses will remove CWD disease vectors via their grazing, without any ill effect to the wild horses.
‘Critical Wilderness’ areas are manifestly unsuited to livestock grazing due to many issues that greatly increase the costs of potentially grazing such areas; namely; 1) motorized vehicles are prohibited by law in such areas; and 2) predators are present in high populations; and 3) terrain and logistics in such remote areas with single track 4X4 roads make livestock management logistic cost prohibitive.
By rewilding American wild horses from BLM and USFS off-range holding areas and into such ‘critical wilderness areas’, we can immediately and cost-effectively address CWD while concurrently reducing one-hour class wildfire fuels (grass and brush).
4) Letter from Dr. Mark Zabel (Prion Research Center Ft. Collins, CO) to William Simpson Re: Wild Horses:
#WildHorses, #CWD, #ChronicWastingDisease

5 replies »

  1. Some thoughts:

    It appears the highest CWD incidences occur in states with the least amount of public land, so while CWD does threaten our overall livestock industry, the tiny fraction of that which is based on public lands grazing brings up new questions for me. Since the livestock grazing public lands are removed every year, if they are exposed to CWD during grazing seasons (highest exposure potential) then they are likely carrying CWD home with them to spread further into private grazing lands. There are so few wild horses compared to so many millions of grazing cattle and sheep the supposition horse grazing could make a bigger dent than livestock in CWD occurrence is unconvincing, especially if the horses are released into “wilderness” areas that have little or no livestock grazing history. At best such actions might provide a mild preventative, but the stronger case is to reduce fire fuels (in some areas).

    If the goal is to protect the US livestock industry (as the author suggests) then it would make more sense to remove the livestock from public lands altogether, or at a minimum put some number of wild horses into each livestock grazing herd to reduce the threat somewhat. To expand that thought, we should perhaps be looking at keeping wildlife out of privately owned grazing areas altogether (good luck with that!).

    Prions are well documented to be spread by predators passing saliva, urine and feces, as well as remaining viable in carcasses for all sorts of entry points into ecosystems. They also persist in soil and can be uptaken in mammals by repeated exposure to CWD carrying dust. It’s not solid science that equids cannot become infected on repeated exposures, nor have any studies like the pilot Dr. Zabel suggested in the linked letter been conducted. If any exist they are not referenced in this article. If indeed equids cannot become infected over time, but repeatedly ingest them, they may likely pass them in their own urine, feces, and carcasses. We just aren’t studying any of this sufficiently.

    I agree this might be a better fate than a lifetime in off-range holding facilities, but the low numbers and high risks to our wild equids, with little or no evidence of reduction in overall threats to livestock and wildlife, doesn’t support the suggestion this could make a major difference on our public lands, for the public benefit. Essentially this supposition calls for wild equids to eat the (growing) grass and brush before the livestock do, which further pits the public interest against the livestock industry.

    In the West, we have short seasonal growing seasons as well, furthering adding fuel to this “fire.” While grazing by any herbivores will of course reduce growing vegetation somewhat, overgrazing is never a good option. Also worth noting: prions are not destroyed by high temperatures, so even if wildfires are hot enough to incinerate soil, some prions survive to spread further, inclding washing through watersheds as the burn scars erode in natural conditions.

    We need more science here, but the BLM is a pretty resistant organism itself. Is there some way to get funding for legitimate and useful research through other means?

    SEE A CURRENT CDC MAP OF CWD IN CERVIDS HERE (other sources report higher incidences, so the truth is still hard to pin down):

    “As of August 2021, there were 356 counties in 25 states with reported CWD in free-ranging cervids. This map is based on the best-available information from multiple sources, including state wildlife agencies and the United States Geological Survey (USGS).”


    As of August 2021, CWD in free-ranging deer, elk and/or moose has been reported in at least 25 states in the continental United States, as well as two provinces in Canada. In addition, CWD has been reported in reindeer and/or moose in Norway, Finland and Sweden, and a small number of imported cases have been reported in South Korea. The disease has also been found in farmed deer and elk.

    CWD was first identified in captive deer in a Colorado research facility in the late 1960s, and in wild deer in 1981. By the 1990s, it had been reported in surrounding areas in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming. Since 2000, the area known to be affected by CWD in free-ranging animals has increased to at least 25 states, including states in the Midwest, Southwest, and limited areas on the East Coast. It is possible that CWD may also occur in other states without strong animal surveillance systems, but that cases haven’t been detected yet. Once CWD is established in an area, the risk can remain for a long time in the environment. The affected areas are likely to continue to expand.

    Nationwide, the overall occurrence of CWD in free-ranging deer and elk is relatively low. However, in several locations where the disease is established, infection rates may exceed 10 percent (1 in 10), and localized infection rates of more than 25 percent (1 in 4) have been reported. The infection rates among some captive deer can be much higher, with a rate of 79% (nearly 4 in 5) reported from at least one captive herd.”


    Liked by 1 person

    • It does seem that estern states which have decimated their wild horse populations do have higher rates of CWD (WY declared CWD epidemic in recent years). There’s no question more catastrophic wildfires are a growing costly threat. CA has lost millions of cervids and thousands of free Roaming wild horses
      in the past decade which consumed ground fuels. The ecological benefits of native wildlife are often overlooked or not realized until it’s too late. Perhaps those millions of cattle/sheep grazing on WHB HMA’S have been benefiting from their contributions all along until now when they are being eradicated from the landscape. We shall see.


    • Thank you VERY much IcySpots, for this education on a subject I know very little about but apparently we should all be aware of. Too bad BLM has plenty of “politicians” and “cronies” but ignores science and ignores the law which basically states that they are to protect the wild horses and burros. Thanks again, Icy.


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