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Meet the man who says wild horses could help prevent the next wildfire

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In rural Northern California, where naturalist William Simpson lives, wildfires are burning hotter and faster than ever before. This includes one fire that came close to his home four years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Governor Jerry Brown declaring a state of emergency for what's being called the Klamathon Fire.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Klamathon Fire, as it's called, erupted late this afternoon.

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

RASCOE: That fire, like many Western wildfires, was fueled largely by overgrown grass and brush. Simpson says there's a solution for taming these fires involving wild horses. Stephanie O'Neill has this report.

STEPHANIE O'NEILL, BYLINE: William Simpson describes the 2018 wildfire that burned near his cabin for nine days.

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

O'NEILL: But despite ferocious winds that sent flames his way, Simpson's property 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.

O'NEILL: This local herd has become the collective poster child for Simpson's proposal to rewild horses rounded up by the Bureau of Land Management as part of its wild horse management strategy. A 1971 act of Congress intended to protect America's wild horses and burros puts the agency in charge of them. And when the BLM determines there's too many, it can order helicopter roundups. Numerous videos found online show the low-flying helicopters swooping down on frightened wild horses, chasing them at full speed into traps set on the range. Lawyer Kelsey Stangebye authored a Law Review article in 2017, critical of the BLM's roundup and management practices.

KELSEY 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 die. The BLM says those numbers are small and unavoidable. And they point to their adoption program that helps to find some of the horses new homes. But thousands of others - about 58,000 right now - live out their lives in BLM holding pens, costing U.S. taxpayers millions in feed and care. And Simpson says that makes no sense.

SIMPSON: Keeping horses out of the wilderness and in confinement is like putting the fire department in jail during fire season.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE VOCALIZING)

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

TOM PATISON, BYLINE: We found the right guy.

SIMPSON: Yeah. 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 looks like something out of a Hollywood Western. It's arid, with mostly juniper and oak trees, some conifers, all of it home to about 90 free-roaming horses.

SIMPSON: All right, so just follow me on.

O'NEILL: OK.

PATISON: OK.

O'NEILL: We head up a steep dirt driveway past more than a dozen horses gathered at the top of the hill. They watch as Simpson hops off the ATV, unlocks a metal gate and waves us through. We park near his cabin 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: Then to the north, we have Oregon just 2 miles away.

O'NEILL: Simpson lives among and studies these horses much in the same way primatologist Jane Goodall embedded herself with the chimpanzees she studied in Africa.

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

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

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

O'NEILL: The herd trusts Simpson, and that's provided him this rare, up-close access to their nuanced behaviors, all documented in his yearslong study of wild horses in the U.S. wilderness area.

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

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 out here, Simpson says, following the game trails deer and elk use, trimming highly flammable grass and brush along the way, about 5 1/2 tons of it per horse per year. Then added bonus - unlike non-native cows, the horses reseed 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 trees they use for cover.

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: It's these so-called ladder fuels that send grass- and brush-fueled fires into fragile forest canopies where they rapidly spread. But in a trimmed landscape, fire burns low and slow, just like nature intended. Deer once did a lot of that clearing, but habitat loss and other factors have decimated Western deer populations. In California, their numbers have shrunk by 80% since the 1960s.

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

O'NEILL: Studies show the loss of large-bodied plant eaters linked to this era of destructive mega wildfires.

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

O'NEILL: He says for wild horses to help fill the deer void requires their relocation - and in the case of captive horses, their rewilding - into these wilderness areas most threatened by destructive wildfires. Then, instead of costing taxpayers millions in captivity, each horse would provide $72,000 worth of brush-clearing work over its lifetime, according to his calculations. And if fewer or less destructive fires result, Simpson says, that value goes way up.

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: But the BLM doesn't share Simpson's enthusiasm. In an email to NPR, the agency says it has a number of ecological concerns, among them that despite the existence of mountain lions, bears and other predators in these wilderness areas, rewilded horses nevertheless might overpopulate and could cause harm to the wilderness ecosystem. Still, Simpson's plan is intriguing fire-weary elected officials on both sides of the California-Oregon border, as well as scientists like Julie Murphree. She's an Arizona State University professor of wildlife management and biological ethics.

JULIE MURPHREE: To me, that seems like a win-win solution.

O'NEILL: Murphy studies wild horses and now volunteers as a board member for Simpson's nonprofit. She points to recent evidence, including new DNA sequencing, that links the modern horse to those that originated here about 1.7 million years ago.

MURPHREE: We know now that horses have evolved on the North American continent. They should be considered native.

O'NEILL: But she does acknowledge that unintended consequences can happen even when species are reintroduced to lands they once roamed. But with rigorous monitoring and real-time adjustments in the field, she supports William Simpson's call for a Wild Horse Fire Brigade pilot program in the American West before more wilderness areas, nearby communities and lives are forever lost. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie O'Neill in Siskiyou County, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie O'Neill