Capt. William E. Simpson II – USMM Ret. contributed the following opinion article to Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities.
An open letter to the officials and legislators of all western states and counties:
By way of an explanation for my persistence in this matter aside from the health, safety and welfare issues related to the exigent risk of catastrophic wildfire in an around western states and counties, I offer the following:
If Americans 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, America 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 why we should hold ourselves, our counties or our states to a lower standard?
Recently, Jackson County Oregon Commissioner Colleen Roberts joined many other Oregon politicians and many scientists in publicly endorsing (on Cable TV) the use of wild horses for natural ground fuel control in difficult access and suppression areas.
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 around our county more fire resistant. And the foundation of this proposal and concept is supported by hard, well established science and empirical evidence cited therein and at the end herein below.
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 U.S. forest landscapes and the resulting prodigious amounts of annual grasses and brush (‘ground fuels’), which is then subjected to longer warmer summers. 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. However with the advent of the recent decline in western deer populations many millions of tons of annually occurring grass and brush remains intact as un-grazed 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’. https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/3354 – Section 114 – transfer of excess animals.
In light of the foundational science  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 large-bodied 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 coincidentally observe trending catastrophic wildfires. Therefore the reintroduction of large-bodied herbivores such as the readily available wild horses in the BLM corrals offers the potential to cost-effectively repopulate missing herbivores at least or until deer populations are 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.
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 much greater percentage than any other herbivores, such as ruminants with complex digestive systems. (http://www.deerfriendly.com/wildfire/-fire-grazing-impact-of-wild-horses-vs-livestock-on-wildfire-regime)
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. The manure from wild horses adds hummus, nutrients, microorganisms as well redistribution of native plant seeds intact across the landscape. ( https://www.horsetalk.co.nz/2018/01/08/fire-grazing-wild-horses-better-cattle )
Wild horses should only be used 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 surveilled 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, OR); very remote rugged terrain; site of multiple catastrophic wildfires; proposed allocation one (1) horse per 300-acres.
2. Six Rivers National Forest (~1-million acres in Siskiyou County, CA); very remote rugged terrain; site of multiple catastrophic wildfires; allocation one (1) horse per 300-acres.
3. Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument (~58,000 acres in Jackson County, OR); semi-remote fragile forest ecosystem in difficult terrain; heavy ground fuel loading; proposed allocation one (1) horse per 100-acres.