Can Wild Horses Be a Solution Instead of a Problem?

Ethologist William E. Simpson II studies the symbiotic wildfire-grazing of wild horses in the Soda Mountain Wilderness. Photo: Carla Bowers

By: William E. Simpson II

Special contributor

 

Ethologist William E. Simpson II studies the symbiotic wildfire-grazing of wild horses in the Soda Mountain Wilderness. Photo: Carla Bowers

 

SODA MOUNTAIN - Existing posits, methods and tactics that attempt to address the accelerating growth of abnormally hot and large wildfires are empirically proven failures on the landscape.

And more money won't change a bad experiment that fails to address the root of the problem, which according to hundreds of wildfire forensic reports at InciWeb are primarily flashy fuels (grass and brush).

Prescribed burning is an arguable solution on only a small fraction of the tens of millions of acres that are overgrown with grass and brush.

And when carefully considered, what exactly is being burned by winter-season prescribed burns?

The answer is; primarily all the grass and brush from the previous year (summer) that didn’t burn.

This means that even after winter-season prescribed burns take-out the previous season’s grass and brush, by the time springtime comes around, new annual grass and brush are already growing and by August, the landscape is once again choked with these now dry fuels due to collapsed populations of native herbivores.

How can anyone legitimately propose setting-fire to tens of millions of acres of public lands annually as a method to reduce grass and brush fuels, when these fuels can be mitigated and maintained by reestablishing the native species herbivores.   

And what about the millions of tons of toxic hydrocarbon compounds and greenhouse gases that are produced from such ill-conceived prescribed burning?

Does anyone really care about the deadly impacts of the millions of tons of airborne toxins produced by prescribed burns and wildfires on the health, safety and welfare of Americans?

Sadly, it seems, all of this is because some people prefer to ignore science and prioritize profits over other more important considerations. Burning the landscape has become very profitable to some entities.

When snags are removed via salvage logging, we still have renewal of annual grass and brush fuels that will incinerate anything in their path once ignited.

We need all the tools in the wildfire-reduction tool box, even the cost-effective ones.

And the firefighting industry needs to evolve its thinking to understand that wildfire prevention via native species grazers fuels reduction is well-proven by science as the most important tool, because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Over the past decade, emerging research shows that the evolution (root cause) of catastrophic (abnormally hot and large) wildfire is the loss of our herbivory. That is an indisputable scientific fact, which is supported by over 125 published peer-reviewed studies and the hundreds of scientists involved in those studies.

The most important tool for flashy fuels mitigation and maintenance is that which Nature had employed for millennia in North America, namely, Large Native Species Herbivores (deer, wild horses, elk, bison).

1) Published science shows that the populations of our native herbivores in the western U.S. are severely depleted. California alone is down 2-million deer over the past 5-decades.

It will take decades of conservation work and investment to bring-back western state cervid populations to the numbers required to aid in wildland fuels reduction. However, we do have a small complement of wild horses (~60,000) that can be deployed from costly BLM holding facilities and into carefully selected designated wilderness areas, which contain threatened flora and fauna as well as heritage (champion trees) trees at risk of incineration by catastrophic wildfire; and,

2) Published science proves that livestock wildfire grazing in designated wilderness areas is ill-advised due to their morphology and biology (teeth, hooves and digestive systems).

Cattle adversely impact sensitive wilderness ecosystems via heavier ground loading (body weight/surface area of hooves of cattle) and soils disruption as opposed to the lower soils disruption from native species wild horses. Cattle have complex digestive systems that strip-off native flora cover crops via the digestion of virtually all of the seeds they consume, leading to abnormal erosion and loss of refreshment of the aquifer. Wild horses have simple digestive systems that pass most of the seeds they consume intact, thus, they actually reseed the landscapes where they graze.

3) Wild horses (E. Caballus = modern horse) are in-fact an important native species herbivore that evolved in North America 1.7-million years ago, and serve a critical evolutionary role in ecosystems as keystone herbivores.

The dissertation by Dr. Yvette Running Horse Collin, PhD, titled; The relationship between the indigenous peoples of the Americas and the horse: deconstructing a Eurocentric myth contains an important historical fact on page 39:

"The Spanish conquistadors were not the only European explorers to have noticed and recorded early sightings of horses in the Americas. In 1579, the Queen of England sent Sir Francis Drake to “The New World.” Drake also recorded having seen herds of horses in the Americas during his voyage off the coasts of what are now known as California and Oregon. An account given of Drake’s landing in the geographic areas now known as Northern California and Southern Oregon includes the English explorer’s description of the homes of the Native Peoples, as well as the animals that he encountered. “It related his wonder at seeing so many wild horses, because he had heard that the Spaniards had found no native horses in America, save those of the Arab breed which they had introduced.” 116 In addition to accounts from explorers appointed by European kings and queens, there are accounts of native horses in South America in the area now known as Argentina. One such account even includes an explanation as to why the Spanish may have been motivated to hide the fact that the Indigenous horse of the Americas existed and had a relationship with Native Peoples. According to an article entitled Antiguedad del Caballo En El Plata (The Antiquity of the Horse in the River Plate) by Anibal Cardoso as cited by Austin Whittall on his blog site article."

Excerpt from the Salt Lake Tribune:

"Despite its name, the ice age saw its fair share of wildfires, particularly towards the end. Humans were partly to blame, as was likely a catastrophic comet that burned some 10% of the earth’s surface almost 13,000 years ago. But Faith and his colleagues found another surprising culprit: the disappearance of large grazers."

“As these ancient giants became extinct, there was nothing left to keep grasses under control,” Faith said, standing in front of a few of Utah’s own long-gone ice age behemoths: the short-faced bear, the mammoth, and the ancient bison. “Instead of mammoths and mastodons, fire became the ultimate herbivore.”

Faith’s research offers key lessons as we face a new age of climate change.

Lesson 1: Grazers or wildfire, something will eat the grass

Faith’s work adds to studies where researchers fenced off an area of savannah grassland to see what happens when herbivores are closed off.

“Not surprisingly,” Faith said, “exclude herbivores and vegetation grows and becomes fuel for fires.”

The new study looks at charcoal records from 410 sites around the globe and compares them with the extinction of large grazers between 50,000 to 6,000 years ago. The researchers found that continents that saw greater loss of large grazers (North & South America) saw a greater uptick in wildfires.

Looking at the full scale of Earth’s history, fire and herbivores have acted to control grasses and vegetation.

“It’s a balance,” Faith said, “but if you take out one, the other is going to take its place.”

Lesson 2: Wild herbivores are declining worldwide

Wildlife populations are declining across the globe.

“Look around,” Faith said, “you don’t see bison roaming around. Outside of farms and national parks, animal populations are on the decline.”

Faith said this can be seen on the scale of millennia and on the scale of decades: “We’ve seen real population declines in our lifetime. In the geologic time scale that’s less than nothing.”

Lesson 3: Pleistocene Park probably isn’t the answer

In September, Colossal Bioscience went public with their effort to resurrect (de-extinct) the woolly mammoth and reintroduce them to Siberia.

Colossal, oddly enough, is a private company. Their website boldly proclaims, “We have the DNA,the technology and the leading experts in the field. Next, we will have the woolly mammoth. Alive again.”

There are arguments for what is known as rewilding – reintroducing missing species into ecosystems as was done with the reintroduction of wolves in certain areas. Faith notes that it might make sense to introduce some comparable species to replace North America’s missing large grazers, “but ecological systems are so complex, and every little change comes with a cascade of consequences, that we have to be cautious.”

Faith uses cheatgrass, which serves as fuel for most of Utah’s valley and foothill fires, as an example. “Mammoths could take care of cheatgrass for us, maybe.”

But that is a big maybe. Some past research has suggested that grazing cattle could help prevent cheatgrass fires, but a more recent study shows cattle grazing as a spreader of cheatgrass.

Faith hopes to see experiments come out of the team’s research, some testing of ideas, but done with all due caution.

Lesson 4: We should rethink wild lands management

Faith sees thousands of years of evidence supporting the idea that wildfire prevention through fire suppression is a flawed approach.

“Extinction killed off large herbivores, vegetation grew, fire took over the job of controlling vegetation,” he said. “If you continually suppress wildfires, the same thing happens – biomass builds up, you get more and more fuel and you’ve got a formula for mega-fires like we keep seeing in the west.”

About the Author:

William E. Simpson II is an ethologist living among and studying free-roaming native species American wild horses. William is the award-winning producer of the micro-documentary film 'Wild Horses'.  He is the author of a new Study about the behavioral ecology of wild horses, two published books and more than 150 published articles on subjects related to wild horses, wildlife, wildfire, and public land (forest) management. He has appeared on NBC NEWS, ABC NEWS, theDoveTV and has been a guest on numerous talk radio shows including the Lars Larson Show, the Bill Meyer Show, and on NPR Jefferson Public Radio.

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