The Force of the Horse

Wild horses can prevent out-of-control wildfires out west, researcher says. Here’s how

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.

Roaming wild horses may help cut down on the size and intensity of wildfires out west, according to research from the Wild Horse Fire Brigade.

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…(CONTINUED)

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