Fighting wildfires with wild horses – an untapped equine fire brigade

A horse in the Bureau of Land Management’s​ (BLM)​ Challis Field Office​ ​Corral. © Devin Davis / BLM

When I see wild horses locked out of nature in holding corrals, I see a huge resource being wasted by ignorance. 

It’s akin to putting an entire fire department in jail during fire season! If they’re not wanted on cattle ranchlands that’s fine, but there are places where there is no competition issues with cattle, where these horses can serve a greater good.

Here’s what I mean.

Wildfires in California.
Wildfires in California.

Like many other local and west-coast ranches, our ranch and its lands are located in rough, mountainous terrain. And like many other areas with varied mountain-valley terrains, we have a lot of grass (fuel for fires) and underbrush in normal years since there are no longer large herds of deer grazing it off or cattle in the area. Cattle and sheep ranchers moved out of the local areas long ago because of to excessive numbers of predators and difficult terrain for managing domestic livestock.

It’s worth considering that in 1960 we had about 2 million deer grazing in California, whereas today we have fewer than 375,000 deer in the entire state. And that there is a direct mathematical correlation between the loss of large herbivores and the increase in catastrophic wildfires.

Now the stage has been set, and this year the fuel on the ground due to an exceptionally wet winter and spring, is excessive, with dense grass and brush that represents a very serious fire hazard to area homes, ranches, pastures and forests.

It’s just amazing to me that most of the people running the forests and counties haven’t made this realization yet and taken appropriate actions. And there is an appropriate cost-effective action and solution available, that is unless they like seeing these wildfires devastate our landscape and ecosystems at the great expense of taxpayers!

Wild horses can prevent catastrophic fires because they are able to consume dry, fire-prone vegetation over vast areas of the west.

The relatively very few horses we have up here in our area truly help with excess fuel abatement, but in order to have a real solution, we’d need another 5000 deer and 500 horses in the local area just to mitigate some of the wildfire risk in and around our 950-acre ranch, which is surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of both private and some forestry lands, along with the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument to the north. The 60 horses that are around the area can’t begin to control all the grass on our lands let alone neighboring lands, even with all the other herbivores combined, so we worry a lot when the summer lightening storms show up.

Our local horses eat the young poison oak, scrub oak, tips of buck brush and star thistle (before the spikes come on) and the grasses as they browse (they move relatively fast as they graze, compared to cows).

A juniper tree that is frequented by horses stands out and is visibly more vibrant and more fire resistant (note the health of its canopy) than nearby junipers that are not frequented, with sparse dry canopies.
A juniper tree that is frequented by horses stands out and is visibly more vibrant and more fire resistant (note the health of its canopy) than nearby junipers that are not frequented, with sparse dry canopies.

Growing up on a ranch made me a very practical person, so using a natural resource to deal with a very serious problem just seems logical. And in the scheme of things, I don’t see how cattle-industry politics on wild horses is solving or paying for our fire situation and the huge annual costs incurred in money, property and lives that are paid by rural cities and counties.

Given the unabated fire hazard facing our county and hundreds of other counties annually, and the huge direct and tertiary costs for those fires in lives, property and money, I think it would wise to immediately begin the re-introduction of wild horses into areas that are not used by cattle and which have inadequate large herbivore (deer, elk) herds to help mitigate the insane fire hazard by reducing extensive grass and brush cover. Wild horses are experts at grazing in difficult terrain and may be obtained without cost from the BLM’s holding corrals outside of Reno, Nevada, Palomino, Susanville and Litchfield, California, as well as Burns, Oregon. There are other BLM centers where horses are being held in southern CA as well as in other states, including Utah, Colorado, Wyoming and elsewhere. These many BLM wild burro and horse holding facilities are conveniently located near many of the worst wildfire areas in America, including Arizona, California, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon.

A juniper tree frequented by horses.
A juniper tree frequented by horses.

From what I have observed (prodigious amounts of vegetative fuels from a wet winter and spring), we’re in for a potentially devastating fire season this year on the West Coast.

If the county wanted (or at least some private property owners), it could adopt some of the horses that are available (free). It seems silly not to take advantage of what horses do so very well naturally, instead of spending millions of taxpayer’s dollars preparing for and fighting catastrophic wildfires, and suffering the related losses of property and lives.

 A juniper not frequented by horses has abundant fuel underneath.
A juniper not frequented by horses has abundant fuel underneath.

Obviously, some ranchers and land owners who are opposed to wild horses could opt out, and instead use cattle, bison or sheep, but those herbivores cost money and require much more management and oversight than wild horses, which evolved in the area and are a native species. The thing about wild horses is that they fare well on their own and horses aren’t devastated as badly as sheep and cattle by lions, wolves and coyotes.

Semi-wild colt Jasper, after a mountain lion attack.
Semi-wild colt Jasper, after a mountain lion attack.

However, with that said, I should note that our small herd of local horses has nevertheless suffered a net drop in population due to the death of older horses and predation of younger horses. So in just the past four years, we have to our knowledge a 10 animal net loss; we’ve named/photographed them, so we keep fairly close tabs on the local herd as we study their benefits to the local ecosystem.

Something that is often overlooked, even by wild horse advocates, is that wild and feral horses are also highly beneficial to trees and forests! They graze off the grass and brush (fuels) under the trees. And as they do, they break-off and crush dry fuel branches into small pieces, which then come into contact with the soil, and break down into humus. This is something that other critters cannot do since it requires a large herbivore. Left unabated, these low-hanging dry branches and fuels under the trees add tremendous heat under the trees during fires, which can damage and burn even heat resistant trees that have heavy or specialized bark.

Horses also add humus to the ground via their manure. This is done when the horses shelter under the trees and in other areas they frequent. I have a dozen photos that exhibit these important points. The results are envious, even to experienced park-maintenance personnel.

We have dozens of trees on our lands that are frequently used by the local horses in both summer and winter and you can point them out from a 1/4 mile away due to their healthy robust canopies. Wild horses have a symbiotic mutualism with all trees and grasslands, and they create park-like grooming under trees they use for scratching (breaks-off and clears dead branches close to the ground) and shelter from weather and sun.

A juniper that hasn't been frequented by horses: Note the fuel at its base, and the sparse canopy, compared with the trees above.
A juniper that hasn’t been frequented by horses: Note the fuel at its base, and the sparse canopy, compared with the trees above.

As a land-owner worried about fires and losing trees, the horses provide a service with genuine value that is most welcomed and is very cost effective!

There is just too much false and misleading information about wild-feral horses floating around these days, much of which disparages the temperament of wild horses as one of many obtuse excuses to damn them to BLM holding pens, or worse yet, to a painful and hellish slaughter. And for Christians who actually follow God’s laws and the Bible, horses or burros must not be eaten according to Leviticus-11 and Deuteronomy-14.

Contrary to rumor, the vast majority of wild and feral horses don’t have a malicious bone in their bodies. It’s the abuse at the hands of people that gives horses a bad attitude and when any animal loses its trust of humans, of course it becomes defensive and people can and do get hurt.

The foregoing claim about wild-feral horses is best exemplified by an encounter my wife and I had with a wild-feral horse we met for the first-time on a mountain top behind our ranch. This home video provides some genuine insight into my claim:

Today, that same horse has grown into sweet-mannered adult with a mutualism to the forests and grasslands where he lives along with the other families of horses and the few deer that remain in an area that is racked with predators as a result of mismanagement. It’s also interesting to see that the few remaining local deer use the horses as cover from predators and will graze close to the horses for added protection and as a warning system.

County planners should take advantage of this cost-effective fire brigade, which is not unionized, doesn’t require health benefits, needs no breaks and never sues the county for HR issues. How can you beat that?

The BLM holding corrals in Litchfield, California and at all the other holding facilities throughout the the west currently have over 40,000 horses available for fire mitigation duty … let’s put them to work doing what they do best!

Majestic, one of the wild stallions of Wildhorse Ranch.
Majestic, one of the wild stallions of Wildhorse Ranch. © Laura Simpson

William E. Simpson

William Simpson is the author of Dark Stallions - Legend of the Centaurians, proceeds from which go towards supporting wild and domestic horse rescue and sanctuary. » Read Bill's profile

5 thoughts on “Fighting wildfires with wild horses – an untapped equine fire brigade

  • July 10, 2017 at 10:35 am
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    Thanks for sharing everything you have so we can see these beautiful animals. TY. I love the videos and short clipps.

    Reply
  • July 11, 2017 at 1:41 am
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    I really love this idea. Wild horses can be a great resource to help out if the BLM would even consider this. It would help to bring the BLM back into a more favorable position in the eye of the public as well. There is a reason these horses have adapted and evolved over the years in rugged terrain. There is a place for everything in nature and it’s time we realized the wild horses place.

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  • July 11, 2017 at 1:40 pm
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    I agree whole-heartedly with you and with Ms. Gasiewski’s comments above. Has an actual ‘plan’ been drafted and submitted to the BLM? If so, where can it be accessed. If not, how do we go about drafting one?

    Reply
  • July 11, 2017 at 1:46 pm
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    The wild horses who are currently being held in captivity should be put out on the public lands where their ecological services are desperately needed. They will then greatly reduce the catastrophic wildfires that the hot summer following the wet winter and spring are producing due to the abundance of vegetation and they will also combat the serious wasting disease among certain ungulates such as deer and elk that is linked to prions on certain grasses, etc. that the horses. This is a win win for all concerned and the wild horses animate and beautify the land, and what could be more important that this?!

    Reply
  • July 12, 2017 at 9:11 am
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    I am associate director of the Prion Research Center at Colorado State University, one of the leading centers for prion research worldwide. Prions are infectious proteins that cause fatal neurodegenerative diseases in many mammalian species, including scrapie in sheep, bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cattle (commonly called “mad cow disease”), several rare human diseases and chronic wasting disease (CWD) in deer, elk, moose, and reindeer.

    One of the many unique features of prions as a pathogen is its extreme resistance to destruction that kill most other pathogens. Prions can exist in the environment for years, even decades, and substantial experimental evidence and mathematical modeling of disease spread indicate environmental contamination by prions excreted in saliva, urine and feces. Accumulating evidence suggests that these CWD prion sources may contaminate surfaces of plants (grasses, etc.), which may act as vectors for indirect CWD transmission.

    CWD has now been found in half of the lower 48 United States, with some herds having up to half of its members infected. This obviously presents a huge management/mitigation issue due in part to the large geographical areas affected by this fatal disease, threatening not just wildlife populations, but also state and local economies that rely on hunting as a significant industry.

    Mitigation and management options become limited at this scale, leading me to suggest that reducing potentially contaminated forage may significantly reduce disease vectors for CWD transmission to cervids (deer, elk and moose).

    While prion diseases affect many mammalian species, scientists have shown that equine species are extremely resistant to prion disease. This observation supports the idea of deploying wild horses into CWD endemic habitats to graze and consume a potentially significant source of environmental CWD prions, preventing consumption by CWD susceptible cervids.

    Since the large geographical distribution of CWD limits options for controlling its further spread, wild horses that are naturally resistant to CWD and consume huge amounts of forage could represent one of the few viable means of stemming the tide of CWD sweeping across the continent. Given the amounts of vegetative materials that can be consumed daily by a single wild horse (est. 30lbs/adult animal), equids may provide a potential solution to interrupt potential CWD vectors, while also aid in reducing dry vegetative materials that kindle wildfires.

    Data accumulated through numerous studies correlate frequency, severity and duration of wildfires with a reduction or absence of large herbivores. Wild horse grazing would have the additional benefit of reducing brush and tinder responsible for igniting vast forest fires we see consuming landscapes and threatening homes and communities across the west every year. It certainly represents an idea that warrants further consideration. I support the implementation of a pilot study to explore this idea further. One opportunity could be to use of some or all of the ~40,000 wild horses currently being held in corrals by the BLM for this purpose.

    Reply

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