Connecting Ranchers with Land Stewards Could Be Key to Less Disastrous Wildfires

As you read this, there are about 150 goats grazing their way through the grass and woodland areas surrounding Fitch Mountain, a local open space preserve in Healdsburg, California, an hour north of San Francisco. The goats will be there for the next few months, eating down the grasses and shrubs that would act as fuel for wildfires across 90 acres.

In a historically dry year, when nearly everyone in the West is bracing for another destructive wildfire season, these animals could be playing a key role in preventing the worst-case scenario. They get rid of the the “ladder fuels,” reducing the potential for burning ground cover to spread to the trees. And they also help protect the people and property in Healdsburg, which has seen major wildfires to the east and the west in recent years.

“We need to create defensible space for residents that live around the mountain: If the preserve catches fire, it will cast embers down into the city,” says Healdsburg Fire Marshal Linda Collister.

goats grazing down wildfire fuel in northern california

It’s the first time the city of Healdsburg has undertaken a large-scale grazing effort, and it received a grant to try it out. There are a range of benefits to having grazing animals do the work, according to Collister. “It’s steep terrain and we would worry about injuries to firefighters. They eat the fuels, whereas we would have to make all that material into chips to burn, which we can’t really do so close to peoples’ homes,” she said. “Plus, they are aesthetically pleasing—everyone loves the animals.”

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The goats on Fitch Mountain will be managed by Chasin Goat Grazing, a local company that spends the year helping manage land and reduce fire risk in the area using grazing. But that’s not possible everywhere, so some land and grazing experts—in collaboration with Indigenous partners—have recently found themselves playing matchmaker in an effort to connect property owners looking to get grazing animals on their land and ranchers whose animals could benefit from the extra forage.

“I finally said, ‘Enough!’ [We’ve had] four catastrophic fires and we’re not doing enough with the livestock owners in the areas where vegetation has grown back to continually manage it,” said Stephanie Larson, who directs the University of California Cooperative Extension in Sonoma County and served as a consultant to the Fitch Mountain project.

The Value of Grazing

By the time the sun rose on an October day in 2017, Sarah Keiser could see flames on the horizon and hear a voice over a loudspeaker mandating an evacuation in her home of Penngrove, California. After a sleepless night, Keiser opened the gates on her ranch, releasing the flock of 25 sheep she hoped would survive a low grassland fire. Then, she loaded the dairy goats, which need daily milking, into her pickup.

Fortunately, the Tubbs Fire stopped several miles from Keiser’s property, Wild Oat Hollow Farm, running out of fuel on the surrounding well-grazed ranchlands. Before the fires that ravaged Sonoma County, Keiser had operated the farm and a community grazing project with her neighbors without considering the wildfire mitigation benefits her animals could provide. Now, she advises landowners on fuel reduction— i.e., reducing the amount of plant material that can burn in a wildfire.

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Keiser has also worked as a consultant with Larson at the U.C. Extension in Sonoma to keep up with the growing interest. Then, last fall, the extension launched a new online mapping tool called match.graze, which allows landowners and ranchers to make profiles and connect with one another.

California is the second state to offer the online matching tool. Larson collaborated with the South Dakota Soil Health Coalition, which first developed a similar mapping website for South Dakota in 2018 with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The hope, says coordinator Cindy Zenk, is that the model spreads nationwide.

Research is still underway on the impact of grazing on wildfire behavior in California, but preliminary results from one recent study showed that grazing can keep fuels low enough for flames to stay below four feet high—a critical threshold that allows firefighters to safely access an area from the ground without heavy equipment.

sheep grazing down wildfire fuel in northern california

On the ground, it appears that all grazing animals appear to have the potential to help, but the study only focused on cattle, pointing to the need for their strategic use in overgrown areas, on public lands, and along the wildland-urban border. Ranchers see an opportunity to ramp up grazing in California, where today the number of beef cows are around 57 percent of their peak numbers in the 1980s. There’s also the potential for keeping more cattle on pasture longer and “grass finishing” them for consumers rather than sending them to feedlots after the first six months.

And there is some encouragement from state legislators: A new state-level bill, AB 434, encourages state land managers to offer extended leases to grazers specifically to mitigate wildland fire.

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Sheila Barry, a U.C. Extension livestock and natural resource advisor and a contributor to the cattle study, highlighted that as long as land managers use practices, such as rotational or “managed” grazing—which involves regularly rotating the animals between separate pastures or “paddocks”—there can be myriad additional ecological benefits besides addressing wildfire. Barry’s research has shown positive impacts for special status species, such as the California Condor. She also found evidence that the managed grazing can help control non-native plants, providing habitat for pollinators, and sequestering carbon.

According to Barry, around half of the beef cattle in California leave the state during the dry months to graze, a strategy employed by ranchers to keep their livestock on the best forage. A program like match.graze could help facilitate more movement within the state, she said.

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