Call for horse grazing pilot study to explore wildfire mitigation

A firefighter works to contain a forest fire. 
A firefighter works to contain a forest fire. © BLM

If people began the evaluation of any project under the premise that it can’t be done or it will be really hard and therefore made no effort, much of the world would still be in a pre-industrial condition.

In fact, all meaningful innovation nevertheless occurs in the face of many obstacles, including but not limited to the lack of money, personnel, assets or contrary legislation. Is there any reason we should hold ourselves, our counties or our states to a lower standard than the one set by leading entrepreneurs?

Recently, Jackson County Oregon Commissioner Colleen Roberts joined many other Oregon politicians (including Congressman Greg Walden) and many scientists when she publicly endorsed the use of wild horses for natural ground fuel control of grass and brush in difficult access and suppression areas where prevention is most critical.

With that said and notwithstanding any potential hurdles, there are undeniable truths that clearly point to a relatively simple and effective ground-fuels mitigation tool (not a silver bullet) for making certain areas in and around our forests more fire resistant.

Catastrophic wildfire: Genesis and mitigation

The relatively recent evolution of worsening catastrophic wildfire trends, including megafire, is a function of many factors including but not limited to past forestry practices, climate change producing more rain in western US forest landscapes and the resulting prodigious amounts of annual grasses and brush (‘ground fuels’), which is then subjected to longer warmer summers.

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

These excessive hazardous ground fuels in and around forests and the wild-land urban interface are the result of reduced grazing by significant declines in deer populations. In and around western forest landscapes, deer have a critical mutualistic role in protecting forests by maintaining ground fuels at nominal levels. But with the advent of the recent decline in western deer populations many millions of tons of annually occurring grass and brush remain intact as ungrazed ground fuel. Much of this excessive ground fuel is in very remote and virtually inaccessible wilderness areas where rugged terrain and numerous apex predators make traditional ground fuel abatement methods, including livestock grazing, impractical if not impossible. One novel approach to dealing with this ground fuel problem and thereby creating more fire-resilient forests is posited by the reintroduction of native-species herbivores (American wild horses) to substitute for seriously depleted deer and thereby reestablishing nominal ground fuel loads via grazing. Such a plan fits within the scope of both established foundational science and common sense, as well as the intent and purpose of established and pending Law providing local and state governments with the acquisition of wild horses from corrals; ‘excess animals’.Section 114 – transfer of excess animals.

In light of the foundational science¹ in regard to the evolution of catastrophic wildfire in areas where populations of large-bodied herbivores that normally graze ground fuels have become depleted, the reintroduction of substitute herbivores is logical and provides a mechanism for natural ground fuel control. Clearly the reduction of ground fuels by grazing herbivores creates and maintains fire resistant landscapes. In many western states where deer have suffered significant population depletions we now see trending catastrophic wildfires. Therefore the reintroduction of herbivores such as the readily available wild horses in the BLM corrals offers the potential to cost-effectively repopulate missing herbivores at least until deer populations have recovered.

A pilot study seems logical if wild horses were carefully allocated into deer-depleted areas in and around remote forest areas with difficult terrain and access issues. Such areas consistently present great difficulty for conventional ground fuel abatement methods and in many cases such methods are impractical or impossible. Furthermore, areas with difficult access and terrain present great challenges and risks for personnel and greatly increased costs for fire suppression. In these particular areas focusing upon prevention seems prudent via an ongoing natural method of ground fuel mitigation via large-bodied herbivores such as wild horses.

Cow moose in the Fortymile Wild and Scenic River corridor. The populations of deer, elk and other herbivores have suffered significant declines in many areas as a result of several factors.
Cow moose in the Fortymile Wild and Scenic River corridor. The populations of deer, elk and other herbivores have suffered significant declines in many areas as a result of several factors. © Bob Wick/BLM

Wild equids seem to be the optimal herbivore for rebuilding fire damaged soils due to their simple monogastric digestive system. Manure from wild horses adds hummus, nutrients and microorganisms as well providing redistribution of native plant seeds intact across the landscape to a greater percentage than any other herbivores, such as ruminants with complex digestive systems.

We have testimony of empirical evidence of the efficacy of the concept in hand, to wit: “ I still like the idea of the horse and I would love to see a controlled area with them to really see what they are capable of. I have seen the work they have done on your property and it looked good but spotty with the low numbers they have. Additionally I really think they have a place in the fuel reduction world.” ~ ODF fire fighter Cascade-Siskiyou National Forest.

Wild horse grazing pilot

Federal, state and/or county authorities can identify areas meeting certain criteria including; remote/difficult access areas with potential for re-burn on fire scars, areas with exigent risk to forest products (timber, new production and restoration protection) and protection for fragile forest ecosystems at risk for catastrophic wildfire. Once an area is identified the carrying capacity of the land (based on soils classes) is established. The total carrying capacity would include and be adjusted for the existing populations of large herbivores (deer-elk), and then add enough wild horses to match 50% of the total estimated carrying capacity. Carrying capacity varies with soil class and the ability of soils to support plant growth annually. Fire scorched soils have reduced carrying capacities for grazing due to the pasteurization (death of beneficial microorganisms) of soils and sublimation of minerals and mineral analogs. The optimal herbivore for rebuilding fire damaged soils is a wild horse due to its simple monogastric digestive system.

Native Kiger horses grazing fire fuels in the national forest
Native Kiger horses grazing in the national forest. © Joel Brumm, Assistant Director of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

Wild horses should be used only in and around remote areas that are unsuited to livestock grazing and/or mechanical ground fuel abatement methods. Such unsuited areas for livestock would include (i) fragile ecosystems, (ii) recently burned areas containing scorched (pasteurized soils) and/or (iii) areas of difficult terrain/access and/or high predator levels making them unsuited for livestock and range management methods. Fire and landscape ecologists along with an appointed wild horse ecologist would monitor their humane deployment and efficacy in pilot areas during a 48-month period, ideally in several locations.

Using established monitoring programs for deer and elk, wild horses can be studied in their assigned forest ecosystems. The areas selected would be surveyed periodically with considerations of pre and post deployment effects of wild horses upon annually recurring grasses/brush ground fuels and forest landscapes. It is expected that as natural prey of mountain lions wild horse numbers would be reduced by some percentage annually in this natural process. Therefore at some point breeding populations with intact stallions would be required to maintain a balance until booming apex predator populations can be brought under control and deer populations re-established to historic levels.

Potential pilot areas and proposed allocations

  1. Rogue-River Siskiyou National Forest (Kalmiopsis Wilderness Area, ~180,000 acres in Curry County, Oregon); very remote rugged terrain; site of multiple catastrophic wildfires; proposed allocation one horse per 300 acres.
  2. Six Rivers National Forest (~1-million acres in Siskiyou County, California); very remote rugged terrain; site of multiple catastrophic wildfires; allocation one horse per 300 acres.
  3. Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (~58,000 acres in Jackson County, Oregon); semi-remote fragile forest ecosystem in difficult terrain; heavy ground fuel loading; proposed allocation one horse per 100 acres.


[1] Collapse of the world’s largest herbivores

William J. Ripple1,*, Thomas M. Newsome1,2, Christopher Wolf1, Rodolfo Dirzo3, Kristoffer T. Everatt4, Mauro Galetti5, Matt W. Hayward4,6, Graham I. H. Kerley4, Taal Levi7, Peter A. Lindsey8,9, David W. Macdonald10, Yadvinder Malhi11, Luke E. Painter7, Christopher J. Sandom10, John Terborgh12 and Blaire Van Valkenburgh13

1Trophic Cascades Program, Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331, USA.
2Desert Ecology Research Group, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia.
3Department of Biology, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305, USA.
4Centre for African Conservation Ecology, Department of Zoology, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Port Elizabeth 6031, South Africa.
5Departamento de Ecologia, Universidade Estadual Paulista (UNESP), C.P. 199, Rio Claro, São Paulo 13506-900, Brazil.
6College of Natural Sciences, Bangor University, Thoday Building, Deiniol Road, Bangor, Gwynedd LL572UW, UK.
7Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331, USA.
8Lion Program, Panthera, 8 West 40th Street, 18th Floor, New York, NY 10018, USA.
9Mammal Research Institute, Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, Gauteng 0001, South Africa.
10Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, Recanati-Kaplan Centre, Tubney House, Tubney, Abingdon UK.
11Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3QY, UK.
12Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, Duke University, P. O. Box 90381, Durham, NC 27708, USA.
13Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA 90095–7239, USA.

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

2 thoughts on “Call for horse grazing pilot study to explore wildfire mitigation

  • February 19, 2018 at 10:23 am

    The burn-cut-and-poison approach to wildfire-prevention has proved ineffective. USFS and BLM have pursued these dangerous, destructive, methods for decades without apparent progress in reducing wildfires. Indeed, wildfires have become more numerous and have morphed into mega-fires. In California, wildfire “season” is virtually year-round. Not only is the forest burning up, but so are these agencies’ budgets. The core-missions of USFS and BLM are suffering because fire-fighting is consuming funds that would otherwise be spent fulfilling each agency’s resource-management mandate.

    In a recent article, the question was posed: “Why are these fires so hard to put out?” The answer:

    “This goes back to why the fires are happening. The fuels are extremely dry. And most areas burn during extreme weather conditions—the days when it’s hot, humidity is low and there are high winds. These are the conditions in which fires quickly double in size. They are also the conditions where it’s most dangerous to put people in front of the fire. Also, a lot of these fires start in very remote areas with rugged terrain, and just putting people on the ground comes with some risk.”

    Note that “fuels” and “very remote areas with rugged terrain” are open to intervention, whereas “extreme weather conditions” and “high winds” are not. Deploying wild horses to graze in hard-to-access, dry-fuels areas could make the difference. The concept certainly merits implementation of a pilot project ASAP.

    USFS and BLM have a ready source of and easy access to wild horses now in holding facilities. BLM constantly moans and groans about how much it costs to keep captured mustangs. Well then, BLM can save millions of dollars by releasing those horses into fire-prone backwoods areas, where they can graze the dry old forage that is primed to go up in flames. Come to think of it, BLM can skip the holding-step entirely by translocating wild horses recently removed from the range directly to targeted areas of the forests. The wild horses would regain their freedom in exchange for working to free the forest of excess fuels.

    The Wild Horse Fire Brigade is an idea whose time has come. And time is of the essence. USFS and BLM need to act on it now.

  • October 25, 2021 at 11:57 am

    Yes this deployment of the naturally living horses and burros to restore ecosystems and prevent catastrophic wildfires is a truly enlightened approach! Very well done Bill and Marybeth (God rest her soul).


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