(CBS4) - A wild horse ethologist at the Oregon-California state line says wild horses could be spared of being rounded up into holding facilities, and instead could be used to help mitigate wildfires. He says it could even work in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, where wildfires have become all too common.
"The concept behind the Wild Horse Fire Brigade is to relocate and re-wild American wild horses so that we don't have to engage in all these very expensive workarounds," said William E. Simpson II, founder of the non-profit Wild Horse Fire Brigade.
Simpson, a conservationist and wild horse ethologist, says the mustangs can be used to slow the spread of wildfires, by putting them in fire-prone forest areas, so they can eat the brush that helps fuel wildfires. He says horses are better for fire mitigation than cows because horses do not completely digest their food, so grass seeds are re-spread onto the land when horses defecate.
"When we reduce those fuels, we reduce the frequency intensity of fire and science proves this," Simpson said.
His nonprofit owns and manages a wild horse herd across 50,000 acres of county open range in Siskiyou County, Calif.
Simpson adopted several wild horses of his own and has been putting his theory to the test on forest lands in Oregon and California.
He says it worked well when one of the last wildfires ripped through the area.
"When it approached the area where our herd of horses was grazing, Cal Fire was able to get a grip on it, because it gave big fire breaks, and open areas where the horses had grazed down the fuels, which gave firefighters and police time to get positioned in front of the fire," Simpson recalled.
Simpson believes his proposed solution could alleviate current concerns about how the federal government is spending millions in taxpayer dollars to round-up and remove horses from the wild every year, and care for them in captivity. With an equine flu outbreak recently killing more than 140 horses at a federal holding facility in Colorado, due to short-staffing problems not properly vaccinating the horses, advocates are calling for a pause in the removals.
Some horse advocates question the validity of Simpson's proposal as a solution.
The American Wild Horse Campaign sent CBS4 the following written statement:
"Wild horses can be helpful for fire suppression in the areas where they are found. In many areas that have been damaged by fire or livestock overgrazing, wild horses graze down brush like invasive cheatgrass, which is highly flammable. This provides a benefit in the areas where they are currently protected and authorized to live.
However, the 'Wild Horse Fire Brigade' concept is something different. It envisions the Bureau of Land Management stripping wild horses in holding of federal protections and turning them over to rural counties, which would then use law enforcement power to turn them loose in National Forests. There is no long-term plan for how the horses would be managed once turned out in a Forest, or what protections they would have against roundup and slaughter once brush was grazed down. Further, the plan runs afoul of numerous federal laws and faces stiff opposition from the environmental organizations, particularly regarding the precedent it would set for expanding cattle and sheep grazing under the guise of fire abatement.
The plan is a non-starter from a legal, environmental and wild horse protection perspective."
The Bureau of Land Management - which manages wild horses across the U.S. - also opposes Simpson's plan, writing to CBS4: "The Bureau of Land Management manages and protects wild horses and burros as authorized by the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act. The Act prohibits the placement of wild horses and burros on areas of public lands where they were not found in 1971 and does not provide for the use of wild horses and burros for targeted grazing. Also, concentrated grazing by wild horses can have detrimental impacts on the natural resources of an area in addition to the removal of fuels."
Simpson offered this rebuttal to those remarks.
The AWHC is pushing for more birth control methods to be used on the range where the wild horses currently roam. That's a measure Colorado's Gov. Jared Polis also supports.
His office sent CBS4 the following statement Friday:
"The Bureau of Land Management has conducted the largest Wild Horse roundups ever in recent years, and the reality is that the scale of horses now entering these kinds of training facilities is simply overwhelming the ability of the Bureau of Land Management to keep the horses healthy. That's why the Governor recently urged the BLM to maximize the use of birth control as a management tool over roundups and postpone an upcoming roundup, which would add even more horses to that overwhelmed system. In managing these horses, the BLM has a responsibility to ensure their continued care, not just on the range or during a roundup, but throughout their lives. Unfortunately, that foresight was not shown here. These roundups also cost taxpayers a lot of money, as does the horse boarding, and it would save tens of millions of dollars to use birth control for herd management instead."
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