Wild Horses Could Keep Wildfire At Bay : Short Wave Stephanie O'Neill reports that's the hope behind the Wild Horse Fire Brigade, a non-profit program piloted by William Simpson.

Under a 1971 Congressional Act, the Bureau of Land Management has the right to round up wild horses on public lands. Oftentimes, those horses are shipped to holding facilities, where they are kept in captivity and separated from their families. William Simpson wants to change that. He wants to deploy the wild horses across public lands, to live and graze — and ultimately, prevent the worst wildfires.

Wild Horses Could Keep Wildfire At Bay

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Hey, duderinos. It's your girl, Emily Kwong, back from a little vacation to the wilds of Maine. And we're going to keep it wild today, with reporter, SHORT WAVE guest editor and lifelong hippophile, aka, lover of horses, Stephanie O'Neill. Hey, Steph.

STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: Hey, Emily.

KWONG: Hi.

O'NEILL: So I've been taking a look at two big problems in the American West. One is the wildfires, which have gotten really bad in recent years...

KWONG: Tell me about it. Yeah.

O'NEILL: ...And totally separately, but I'll bring them together, is the cost of caring for captured wild horses.

KWONG: Captured wild horses - if they're wild, why are they in captivity?

O'NEILL: So an act passed by Congress in 1971 to protect America's wild horses and burros, puts the Bureau of Land Management in charge of these animals on most public land. And whenever the agency determines there are too many in a given area, it can order roundups.

KWONG: OK. And what happens to those horses?

O'NEILL: Some find new homes through the BLM's wild horse adoption program, one of which, Emily, I adopted about 20 years ago.

KWONG: That's so cute.

O'NEILL: Yeah, that was little Zorro, who's since gone to the great pasture in the sky. And he was just this gorgeous, sweet horse. But, Emily, he was very traumatized - never fully trusting of humans. And we suspect it was due, at least in part, to how he was captured.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER RUNNING)

KWONG: Oh. Was he captured by helicopter?

O'NEILL: Yep. The BLM uses helicopters to round up these horses. The sound we're hearing is from a video posted by wildhorseeducation.org, and it's one of many online that show the BLM helicopters swooping down above the horses and chasing them, sometimes for miles, into traps they've set out on the range.

KELSEY STANGEBYE: After this marathon of terror, they're then put into the corrals. And these animals have never been in any kind of confinement.

O'NEILL: That's lawyer Kelsey Stangebye, who authored a law-review article in 2017 critical of the BLM's roundup practices.

STANGEBYE: Now they're all piled in there together, and they're fighting the fence lines. They're jumping the fence lines - dramatic, visually horrific for the animal.

O'NEILL: Horses get injured, some fatally. The BLM calls the situation unfortunate and says those numbers are small and unavoidable in these roundups. But as wild horse advocates point out, the physical injuries are just part of the story. After the roundups, the horses are shipped to holding facilities, where most live out their lives separated from their families. Right now, the BLM is managing about 55,000 to 60,000 horses in captivity.

KWONG: Oh, this sounds, potentially, kind of traumatic for the horses, Steph.

O'NEILL: It can be. And it costs American taxpayers about $90 million a year to feed and care for these horses. But, Emily, California naturalist William Simpson, who studies wild horses, says there is a better way. And he calls it the wild horse fire brigade.

KWONG: What now? What?

O'NEILL: The wild horse fire brigade. It's a plan to rewild captured horses in family units into selected, designated wilderness areas to help protect against today's destructive wildfires. Simpson says it makes no sense to hold them in captivity.

WILLIAM SIMPSON: By keeping horses out of the wilderness and in confinement, it's like putting the fire department in jail during fire season.

O'NEILL: Because wild horses can help prevent wildfires. I'm Stephanie O'Neill.

KWONG: And I'm Emily Kwong. And you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

O'NEILL: So the story begins in northern California with William Simpson, who, like a growing number of Californians, is intimately familiar with wildfire. Simpson lives in rural Siskiyou County, where the so-called Klamathon Fire roared to life in July of 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Governor Jerry Brown declaring a state of emergency for what's being called the Klamathon Fire. This fire broke out...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Erupted late this afternoon near the tiny community of Hornbrook. That whole town is evacuated. The...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A major fire fight is on in Siskiyou County, where the Klamathon Fire has burned more than 33 square miles...

O'NEILL: The wildfire burned for more than two weeks, trapping and killing one local resident, destroying homes and consuming more than 38,000 acres of critical wilderness area. For nine days, it burned around Simpson's property.

SIMPSON: The fire just came right up over that ridge, burned all the trees and destroyed all that conifer forest up there.

O'NEILL: Despite ferocious winds, though, something interesting happened on and around Simpson's ranch. It didn't burn. And he credits the community's wild horse fire brigade.

SIMPSON: It started getting into the area where our local herd of wild horses had reduced the fuel. Large areas that were grazed open became safe zones for CAL FIRE personnel and equipment that were stationed in front of the fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE WHINNYING)

O'NEILL: Simpson and his partner, Michelle (ph), live on the edge of the Soda Mountain Wilderness area. You get there with GPS coordinates that take my partner Tom (ph) and me along a remote mountain road to a man in a cowboy hat waiting for us on his ATV.

SIMPSON: Did you see any horses coming up?

O'NEILL: We did.

SIMPSON: Yeah, they're kind of spread out at this time of the year.

O'NEILL: The landscape here at this 2,800-foot elevation looks like something out of a Hollywood Western. It's arid with mostly junipers and oak trees, some conifers, all of it home to about 90 free-roaming horses.

SIMPSON: All right, so just follow me on up.

O'NEILL: OK.

TOM: OK.

O'NEILL: We drive up a curvy, steep, dirt driveway past more than a dozen horses gathered near the top of the hill. They watch us as we stop in front of a metal gate. Simpson unlocks it, then waves us through. We park a few yards from his cabin that sits off the grid on a hill overlooking a large reservoir.

SIMPSON: To the west, we have the Six Rivers National Forest. If we look to the south, you can see the top of Mount Shasta right there.

O'NEILL: Oh, yeah, OK.

SIMPSON: And then to the north, we have Oregon, just two miles away. So we're virtually on the Oregon-California border here.

O'NEILL: Simpson lives among and studies these horses, much in the same way Jane Goodall embedded with the chimpanzees of Africa for six decades. It's a method that allows them to document nuanced behaviors of wild horses and their interactions within the wilderness ecosystem.

SIMPSON: Hey, baby. You going to come over and see us?

O'NEILL: He's familiar with each horse - their personality, their age, their all-important status within the herd.

SIMPSON: This guy down here - that's the stallion. We named him Mystic (ph). This is his lead mare, the one that's really pregnant here. And then here comes Candyman (ph), who thinks he's a tough boy.

O'NEILL: The herd trusts Simpson, and that provides him this rare opportunity for an up-close, years-long study of wild horses in a designated wilderness area.

SIMPSON: This morning, they were way up there by those rocks grazing, yeah.

O'NEILL: So where do they live - way up in those mountains up there?

SIMPSON: They go everywhere here. They can be in Oregon in an hour.

O'NEILL: The horses tread lightly in this environment, Simpson says, using the same game trails deer and elk use, trimming highly flammable grass and brush along the way. Then, unlike cows, which are a non-native species, they replant through their manure much of what they eat, including native and endangered plants.

SIMPSON: Here's a horse dropping. And you open it up, and you can see they're, like, little compost balls with seeds in it.

O'NEILL: The horses also help fireproof the trees they use for cover by scratching against and breaking off low-lying limbs. That so-called ladder fuel allows flames to climb from tall, dry grass into fragile forest canopies.

Now, this juniper, I'm noticing, did they break branches off that?

SIMPSON: Yeah. They hang around these trees, and they scratch, and then they break off the limbs. You can see that one down there's - a lot of limbs are busted off.

O'NEILL: And, Emily, wild horses eat about 5 1/2 tons of grass and shrubs annually over their roughly 15-year lifespan. With the grass and limbs trimmed, when fire comes, it burns slow and low, like nature intended.

KWONG: Nature's lawn mowers.

O'NEILL: Exactly.

KWONG: This is so interesting. Horses are like slow-moving fire brigades. Their natural behavior changes the landscape in ways that prevent wildfires from getting really big in the first place.

O'NEILL: Exactly. And the horses helped fill the grazing void left most recently by deer, which have suffered staggering losses in the West.

KWONG: Oh. What's happening with the deer in the West?

O'NEILL: Well, it's a combination of factors, including habitat loss, disease and wildfire deaths, even.

KWONG: Yeah.

O'NEILL: So, just in California alone, their numbers are down 80%, or about 2 1/2 million deer since the 1960s.

SIMPSON: Those deer were grazing 3 million tons of annual grass and brush. That's a lot of fire fuel.

KWONG: Yeah.

O'NEILL: And without these highly combustible flash fuels, as they're known, wildfires won't easily burn. And if you've ever used a fireplace, you understand why.

SIMPSON: You need kindling to light trees on fire. You can't just light heavy lumber.

KWONG: Yeah. And animals like deer and horses kind of chomp and diminish that kindling.

O'NEILL: Yeah. And Simpson points to numerous studies that link the loss of large-bodied plant eaters to destructive, mega wildfires.

KWONG: Wow.

SIMPSON: Going back a million years, there wasn't catastrophic fire in North America. That is a brand-new paradigm since we lost large-bodied herbivores that control grass and brush.

KWONG: That is fascinating stuff. I mean, if horses are this helpful in wildfire prevention, why is the BLM rounding them up in the first place, besides the fact that a federal law allows them to do so?

O'NEILL: Well, I mentioned the wild horses annually eating 5 1/2 tons of grass and shrubs.

KWONG: Yeah.

O'NEILL: That's largely on mixed-use, public lands, alongside livestock operations. And that can cause resource depletion and competition, which can trigger roundups. But Simpson, who's a former cattle rancher, says allowing the horses into designated wilderness areas would fix that.

SIMPSON: There are no livestock grazing, but there are pristine forage and water-rich areas that also have forests and wildlife. And putting the horses in there helps protect those ecosystems.

O'NEILL: And, Emily, as he points out, the modern horse, which originated in North America 1.7 million years ago, co-evolved with North American predators to go after the sick, old and very young horses, keeping the horse population healthy and in check.

KWONG: Yeah. This sounds really good for them. Does it make any difference to taxpayers?

O'NEILL: It does. As Simpson says, in the right area, these horses can offer a valuable service that he says is worth $72,000 per horse.

KWONG: Whoa.

O'NEILL: Yeah. He bases that on the cost of removing the same amount of field a wild horse eats over its lifetime with prescriptive burns or hand clearing. And Emily, if fewer fires result, the savings is even bigger.

SIMPSON: In California, in 2018, I think we had $180 billion in losses. If we affected that just by about 2 or 3%, we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars in additional savings on top of the $72,000.

O'NEILL: So there you have it, Emily - the wild horse fire brigade. It's a plan Simpson and his nonprofit group would like to see replicated in several closely monitored pilot programs.

KWONG: Got you. Got you. Steph, does this idea have legs, wild horsey legs, that can carry it into reality across the West?

O'NEILL: (Laughter). Well, it does. Simpson based the plan on a recent federal law that allows for the humane transfer of these captured wild horses to government agencies for use as workhorses. And so far, there are elected officials on both sides of the Oregon-California border who are interested, as is an Oregon Department of Forestry manager and a growing number of scientists, Julie Murphree among them.

JULIE MURPHREE: It does seem like it's a win-win situation.

O'NEILL: She's a professor of equine science at Arizona State University, and she's joined the board of Simpson's nonprofit.

MURPHREE: Taxpayers no longer paying for the burden of the horses in captivity. The horses themselves have their welfare enhanced by being set free. Ecosystem being enhanced by the activities of the horses.

KWONG: Steph, I'm a bit confused. If this is such a win-win, then why isn't it already happening, you know?

O'NEILL: Yeah, well, the BLM has a number of ecological concerns, Emily. And one of them is that despite the predators, they worry that wild horses could overpopulate and cause harm to the wilderness ecosystem. And Murphree tells me there's always the possibility of unintended consequences when dealing with habitat changes.

KWONG: Like what?

O'NEILL: Like horses attracting more mountain lions, which might consume even more of that shrinking deer population. But Murphree says, with close monitoring, she supports a wild horse fire brigade pilot program, especially since just one of today's destructive mega wildfires can wipe out an entire ecosystem.

KWONG: Steph, what I love about you is whenever you get on mic, it's always so interesting, and you take us...

O'NEILL: Thank you.

KWONG: ...Someplace that's having deep, philosophical, environmental questions.

O'NEILL: There you go.

KWONG: Thank you for bringing us this one.

O'NEILL: You are so welcome.

KWONG: Wild horses couldn't drag me away.

O'NEILL: You did it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD HORSES")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Wild horses couldn't drag me away.

KWONG: Today's episode was produced by Rebecca Ramirez. It was edited by Gisele Grayson, our senior supervising editor, and fact-checked by Rachel Carlson. Natasha Branch is the engineer responsible for making this episode sound so good. Our programming higher ups are our senior director Beth Donovan and senior vice president Anya Grundmann. I'm Emily Kwong. Thank you so much for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WILD HORSES")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) ...A dull, aching pain. Now you've decided...

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