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Climate Good News

Around the world people are taking the initiative to mitigate climate change. Here are some good news briefs compiled by the Climate Issue Group of the LWV of Bellingham/Whatcom

Could Wild Horses Be the Answer to Wildfire Management?

In 2014, William E. Simpson moved to a remote hillside near Yreka, California, close to the California-Oregon border.

He soon found he was sharing his acreage with a band of wild horses. They mostly benignly ignored each other until one day when a young mare nuzzled up to him — displaying obvious signs of a parasitical infection. He gave her some antibiotic pills and the next day she came back with her whole family. Over the years, the horses have come to him with injuries, such as cuts from the barbed wire abandoned farms had left behind or gashes from mountain lion attacks. “It’s all voluntary,” Simpson says. “They are wild. You can’t put a halter or anything over their head. They just come and present their injuries. Some let you do more than others.”

In 2018, the 380,000-acre Klamathon fire tore through the hillsides and Simpson and his wife decided to stay to defend their small ranch. He was interested in the horses’ behavior. Would they panic? No, they remained calm and kept grazing. He realized “they have been here for a million years and are used to fires … they reduce the wildfire fuel keeping the risks at bay.” His own cabin and the surrounding hills were spared.

Simpson became a man with a mission. What if when the herds started to get too big, instead of rounding up the wild horses, auctioning them off, or sending them to the meat packers, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) relocated them strategically to the nation’s more than 110 million acres of designated wilderness and other open land, where they could keep grasses and vegetation in check as keystone herbivores. “They naturally protect forests, wildlife, watersheds and wilderness systems,” he says. “Keeping wild horses in captivity is like keeping the fire department in jail during fire season. Taxpayers save money, wildfires are kept in check, and the horses get to live wild.”

In 2022, the BLM spent $138.5 million of taxpayer money on capturing, managing and feeding the horses. That is a lot of money. However, the BLM suggests that “using wild horses to reduce fuels could also cause ecological problems, including reducing native plant and animal diversity through intense grazing.” They also worry about overpopulation of the herds. Simpson counters with this: “In the early 1900s, there were two million wild horses in North America,” he says, “and, though there is less open land available to the horses now, predators such as pumas and bears keep the population in check while coyotes often take young foals. Only the fastest, most resilient horses make it.”

Simpson says his own herd has been kept down to 57 horses due to these predators. He officially owns his own horses and has had management authority, because the Siskiyou County Agricultural Commissioner formally recognized his work. In 2022, Simpson founded a nonprofit and named it after his mission: Wild Horse Fire Brigade. Several experts have backed Simpson’s findings and share his fear that the BLM is managing wild horses into extinction, including David Phillipps, the bestselling author of “Wild Horse Country.” “The BLM is ignoring all science,” Phillips says. “The truth is that the mountain lions evolved with the horse … does the BLM not recognize predation could be a way to manage the herd sizes?”

We need to reframe our entire relationship with wild horses and wild landscapes,” says Wayne Linklater, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis about wild horses in New Zealand, and calls the current management of wild horses “the result of a broken system.”


Update: A Rare Win for Wild Horses

On July 18, 2023, after months of legal jousting, the U.S. Department of Justice settled the lawsuit brought against the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) by Vermont Law and its client Wild Horse Fire Brigade (“WHFB”). A roundup of 200 from a herd of 230 was deemed illegal and the horses were left to manage the land. It was a win for WHFB.

These regional wild horses play an essential role in managing grassland and forest ecosystems by reducing and maintaining grass and shrubs that present a major wildfire hazard. Additionally, the horses are unlike invasive species like ruminant livestock (cattle, sheep and goats) that have multicambered stomachs and chew a cud digesting most of the plant and grass seeds they consume, which can ultimately strip a landscape of native flora. Instead, horses pass most of the seeds they consume intact which germinate in their dung, thereby reseeding the landscapes where they graze.


Green Corridors Cool a Columbia City

New plant-filled curb strips, squares, parks, vertical gardens and sidewalks have led to dramatic drop of two degrees Celsius across the Colombian city of Medellín. And as the city expands its green corridors program, officials expect a further decrease of four to five degrees over the next few decades, even taking into account climate change. 

Previously, Medellín had undergone years of rapid urban expansion, which led to a severe urban heat island effect — raising temperatures in the city to significantly higher than in the surrounding suburban and rural areas. Roads and other concrete infrastructure absorb and maintain the sun’s heat for much longer than green infrastructure.

Medellín grew at the expense of green spaces and vegetation,” says Pilar Vargas, a forest engineer working for city hall. “We built and built and built. There wasn’t a lot of thought about the impact on the climate. It became obvious that had to change.”

Under Mayor Federico Gutiérrez, the city launched a new approach to its urban development — one that focused on people and plants in “green corridors” that mimic the natural forest. The $16.3 million initiative led to the creation of 30 Green Corridors along the city’s roads and waterways, improving or producing more than 70 hectares of green space, which includes 20 kilometers of shaded routes with cycle lanes and pedestrian paths. The Colombian city is driving down temperatures –– and could become five degrees cooler over the next few decades.

Heat-trapping infrastructure like metro stations and bridges have also been greened as part of the project and government buildings have been adorned with green roofs and vertical gardens to beat the heat. The first of those was installed at Medellín’s City Hall, where nearly 100,000 plants and 12 species span the 1,810-square-meter surface.

The 72 species of plants and trees selected provide food for wildlife, help biodiversity to spread and fight air pollution. “The technical team thought a lot about the species used. They selected endemic ones that have a functional use,” explains Paula Zapata. “It’s like urban acupuncture,” says Zapata, advisor for Medellín at C40 Cities, a global network of about 100 of the world’s leading mayors. “The city is making these small interventions that together act to make a big impact.”

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