Featured News, Siskiyou

Not Your Ordinary Horse Ranchers

By: Admin – Wild Horse Fire Brigade

Will the next generation of ranchers know their history? Cooper Graham ponders the view from his grandfather’s (William Simpson II) ‘Wild Horse Ranch’ as ‘Jack’ (right) and ‘Titan’ (left) look-on. Photo courtesy of William E. Simpson II

Michelle Gough and William E. Simpson II are wild horse researchers and board members of Wild Horse Fire Brigade. They live at Wild Horse Ranch, which also serves as a wildlife research and observation station for their nonprofit.

They are not you’re garden variety ranchers. 

Along with the all-volunteer nonprofit organization called ‘Wild Horse Fire Brigade, Michelle and William own and manage a herd of heritage wild horses.

Some of these ‘heritage wild horses’ are believed to be descended from wild horses seen and documented by Sir Francis Drake in 1580 during his exploration of the region. The bones (fossils) of these ancestral wild horses can be found in region. Wild horses are woven into the local history and tradition of the people who built their lives and communities in and around the Cascade-Siskiyou mountains in Jackson County Oregon and Siskiyou County California. 

These ‘heritage horses’ were also documented living in the immediate area of the present-day Cascade Siskiyou National Monument by George F. Wright, whose family arrived in Hornbrook California in 1851. Photos of “wild horses” taken in 1911 and through 1957 by George F. Wright are preserved in the family photo album, which is being studied by Michelle and William along with the personal diary of George Wright.

More about that here:  The American Heritage of Wild Horses

Michelle and William live in a cabin situated at an elevation of about 3,000 feet in the remote wilderness mountains on the Oregon-California border. There they live among and study their herd of free-roaming wild horses on that rugged-remote wilderness landscape.

Everyday living in a remote wilderness area comes with risks, challenges and the labor intensive daily chores that are required to live in such a remote location where even the basic conveniences found in rural towns are non-existent. 

At night, mountain lions, bears, wolves, coyotes, foxes and bobcats prowl the area in search of prey. 

August 2015

Using numerous game-cameras to study the nocturnal activities of wild horses, images of apex predators, such as the mountain lions seen in these images, are also captured.

July 2017
April 2017

Mountain lions are the most prevalent and persistent predators in the area.

In the summers, deadly rattlesnakes, camouflaged so well they are difficult to spot, ply the landscape. 

William Simpson is holding a large rattlesnake (71-inches) that had 15-buttons on it’s rattle. Unfortunately, when rattlesnakes attempt to take-up residence at Simpson’s cabin, they must be dispatched due to the deadly threat they pose to both humans and pets.

Fast moving wildfires can appear out of nowhere when lightening or other ignition sources unexpectedly ignite the landscape.

Klamathon Fire on July 7, 2023, 3-miles distant and approaching Wild Horse Ranch. Photo: William E. Simpson II

William is no stranger to wildfire. As he says “I’ve looked into the eyes of the Dragon and breathed its breath”. During his days as a logger in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s he helped fight a few small fires of that era. 

William Simpson II (pictured) was recruited as a volunteer by CALFIRE as a technical advisor during the 38,000 acre Klamathon Fire of 2018. This was the last photo taken by his wife Laura, who was killed by toxins (not carbon-monoxide) in the wildfire smoke. 

More recently (2018) William served on the Klamathon Fire fire-line for 9-days as the technical advisor to CALFIRE during that deadly wildfire, which claimed the life of his wife of 47-years, Laura Simpson

Klamathon Fire on July 8th, 2023, 1-mile from Wild Horse Ranch. At this point, the wildfire had consumed about 30,000 acres. Photo: William E. Simpson II

It is by any standard, wilderness living and it comes with both risks and rewards.

But why on earth would anyone want to endure such a harsh, hard-living landscape? 

For Michelle and William, the answer is simple, wild horses, and the value they can provide to humanity.

“That value can only be determined and presented to the world via careful close-range study of wild horses in a natural wilderness setting, that contains a balanced ecosystem”, according to Michelle and William.

William has conducted a comparative cost analysis in regard to the costs of removing and maintaining landscapes with reduced grass and brush wildfire fuels. Grass and brush are the key fuels in over 60% of all catastrophic wildfires according to Simpson’s research, and were relevant in the recent deadly Maui Fire.  

And there are many other benefits to landscapes where wild horses are part of the ecosystem, as stated in this official comment (PDFto the Bureau of Land Management in regard to their range management plan (RMP) for the Cascade Siskiyou National Monument by Dr. Wayne Linklater, the Chair of Environmental Sciences at Sacramento State University in California.

Michelle and William are using a study methodology they have coined as the ‘Goodall Method, in honor of Dr. Jane Goodall who used close observational study to learn about the secret lives of the Apes in Gombe Africa in 1960. Her work led to the revolutionary discovery that Apes made and used tools.

Wild Horses are unique and different from both domestic horses and other large-bodied North American mammals in many important ways. 

According to Michelle, William and the team at Wild Horse Fire Brigade, there is so much that must be learned and revealed to the world before it’s too late, for both the wild horses and humankind.

The value of wild horses as keystone herbivores that help to mitigate wildfire fuels and enhance ecosystems is poorly understood. Wild horses have proven to be cost-effective in wildfire fuels (grass & brush) reduction and mitigation as well as making suppression efforts more cost-effective.

The problem facing American wild horses today is that some people incorrectly feel wild horses have little or no commercial value. So they attempt to misinform others and demonize them by incorrectly calling them invasive or feral. But the use of these terms in regard to wild horses living in North American is inappropriate in every way as is explained by Dr. Ross MacPhee who is the senior curator of mammalogy at the American Museum of Natural History.

But that belief is the result of wild horses being understudied due to a lack of corporate and government funding. 

EIN NEWS issued a press release citing the impacts of understudied wild horses.

Many wild horses on the American wilderness landscape today have retained much of the genetic vigor of old-world horses, including, but not limited to; disease resistance (they are resistant to deadly chronic wasting disease – ‘CWD’), superior traits related to muscular-skeletal systems, ability to recover from serious traumatic injuries and ‘hooves of stone’ that resist splitting and chipping.

Wild horses evolved on the North American continent millions of years ago and spread from there across the world. They evolved during a time when the earth was subjected to cataclysmic turmoil due to climate and geological upheaval, including times of vulcanism and Ice Age. Nevertheless, they evolved and survived. 

Through the evolutionary process of Natural Selection where environmental pressures tested and culled inferior genetic traits, arguably only the best wild horses were able to adapt-to and survive a violent and changing world. 

Unlike many other mammals that went extinct due to massive environmental pressures, wild horses (E. Caballus) had the resilience and genetics that allowed them to survive into the modern age. That genetic vigor must respected and it’s value clearly understood before the mismanagement of wild horses using roundups and chemical sterilization creates an irreversible loss of genetic diversity and a genetic bottleneck.

Selective breeding for traits and characteristics that were and are desired for human utility has caused genetic erosion and loss of genetic vigor in virtually all domestic horse breeds today. Using chemical sterilization on wild horses, also called ‘Fertility Control’, ‘Birth Control’ and ‘Contraception‘ with compounds called ‘PZP’ and ‘GonaCon’ poses a serious genetic risk to wild horses and their survival. It is a form of selective breeding, when a human decides what animals get to breed.

Just a few of the genetically related issues caused by selective breeding of domestic horses are cited in these two articles: 

1.  https://spalding-labs.com/community/b/morgan_murphy/archive/2015/05/21/equine-genetic-disorders-the-basics.aspx

2. https://ker.com/equinews/common-genetic-diseases-quarter-horses/

This article provides more insight into the natural selection of wild horses: https://fox4kc.com/business/press-releases/ein-presswire/609358968/new-research-reveals-natural-selection-has-many-facets-affecting-genetics-foal-survival-of-wild-horses/

The latest science and cultural archaeology suggest that pockets, or splinter populations of wild horses did survive the Ice Age, and continued living in North America.

After migrating from North America into Asia over Bering Strait land-bridge roughly 20-30 thousand years ago, at a time when horses had exclusively existed and evolved in North America, wild horses were eventually subjected to selective breeding (inbreeding and line-breeding). That off-continent selective breeding of North American wild horses started roughly 6,000-years ago.

When the indigenous peoples arrived from Asia over the Bering Strait onto the North American continent roughly 20-30 thousand years ago, native North American wild horses became part of the indigenous culture and are woven into the fabric of their history, as we learn in this PBS Colorado documentary: https://www.pbs.org/video/native-horses-zwibqv/

In 1492, with the first arrival of Columbus, the first domesticated horse stepped back onto the North American continent, returning to its ancestral homeland, a homecoming event.

However, with the arrival of the European settlers (post Columbian period) and the re-introduction of horses that had been domesticated, the natural history of American horses was made more complex via Eurocentric Perspectives being integrated into natural history.


  1. Shawn Williams

    Wonderful Article on North American Wild Horses and a big thank you to both Michelle Gough and William Simpson 11 for what they do and the very hard conditions they endure. First theres nothing so beautiful, and second this article is right on about the conservation of these herds and what they do for the environment and landscape. I only wish the government would have realized this long ago, and been so quick to put their hands in the extinction of such a natural process of the ecosystem.

    • Thank you for your comment and support. We do all that we do for our community, the environment and the wildlife, especially the wild horses. We don’t make a dime off what we do… we are ‘paying it forward’ for the generations to come. Regards, William

  2. I second the comment left by Shawn Williams. I appreciate the research that the Wild Horse Fire Brigade brings to the table. I find the BLM’s management and treatment of our wild horses and burros egregious. Recognizing the value of these wild creatures may be key to their future survival. Always happy to see Wild Horse Fire Brigade get press coverage to help spread their message.

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