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Wild Horse Fire Brigade

Worsening conditions in the drought-stricken landscape of the American West triggered an emergency round-up of wild horses in Colorado. Activists and organizations opposed these roundups, saying they are unnecessarily extreme and that the horses are being blamed for damage caused by livestock. Scientists studying the rangeland ecosystem say the issue is complicated. One naturalist proposed a solution.

In a proposal titled “Natural Wildfire Abatement and Forest Protection Plan,” naturalist William Simpson proposed the Wild Horse Fire Brigade, a wild horse relocation project that would prevent and control the spread of wildfire.

To gain insight into the feasibility of this project, I spoke with rangeland ecologist and Utah State University professor Dr. Eric Thacker.

“It’s clear than any large ungulate, or grazing animal, that exceeds a certain population level begins to cause degradation on the landscape,” Thacker said. While the less efficient digestive system of horses may help reseed native plants, it comes with caveats. To get enough nutrients horses compensate by eating more forage, which can damage the landscape. “So if you’re going to use grazing as a tool to manage fuels for wildfires, it needs to be done very strategically,” Thacker said.

Since the passing of the 1971 Wild Horse and Burro Act, wild horses have been protected at a level on par with species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Nicki Frey, USU Associate Professor of Wildlife Biology, sees this as a barrier for the Wild Horse Fire Brigade. 

“My knee jerk reaction is that, in order for this to even work, you would have to change the entire way that horses are managed,” said Frey.

The Wild Horse Fire Brigade addresses some of the concerns people have surrounding the management of wild horses. The horses would not be corralled and adopted out but allowed to retain their wild nature. On the other hand, to effectively reduce fuel for wildfires, their grazing would need to be regulated.

“It would be an intensively actively managed enterprise, which then would certainly conflict with the goal of the Wild Horse and Burro Act,” said Frey.

Caroline Long is a science reporter at UPR. She is curious about the natural world and passionate about communicating her findings with others. As a PhD student in Biology at Utah State University, she spends most of her time in the lab or at the coyote facility, studying social behavior. In her free time, she enjoys making art, listening to music, and hiking.