How goats (and other grazing animals) can save California from the next wildfire

By Mark Nelson, Special to CalMatters

Another wildfire season has Californians scrambling to learn how to live with a new normal. The increased intensity of fires has impacted the lives of people in every corner of the state.

Last year, 89 Californians lost their lives and more than 13,000 homes and businesses were leveled by wildfires. This year, nearly 200,000 acres and 732 homes have been lost.

California is working hard to respond to this threat, coordinating across state and local agencies to put fires out quickly. Fire crews from out of state have come to California’s aid to battle against the longer, larger and hotter wildfires. 

Yet wildfires remain a dangerous risk, fueled by extreme winds, drought and a buildup of flammable scrub. 

So what else can we do to protect and prepare our state for the inevitable fires of the future?

We can better tend to our land. And ranchers are here to help. 

The Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley was narrowly saved from the Easy Fire last month. But it wasn’t just firefighters that the library sent to the front lines. They also sent goats.

In feeding increments of 15 minutes each, ranchers moved the goats from one target to another and the hungry goats gorged, gnawing their way through thickets of flammable scrub to create a fire break around the library.

Ultimately the library, which stows presidential and historic relics, was saved by land stewardship, specifically grazing—a tool too commonly overlooked when it comes to the control of vegetation and heavy fuel loads in forests and hillsides across the state.

Letting land sit unmanaged and untouched is a recipe for disaster. Temperatures rise and vegetation turns to brown brush. The dry tinder coupled with high winds turn beautiful landscapes into  flammable, even deadly, terrain.

Grazing is also an economically effective alternative to machine and human brush-removal. A recent wildfire safety report estimates goat crews cost an average of $500 while human crews can cost upwards of $28,000. Plus, goats are agile climbers, able to scurry up steep hillsides and scale narrow canyons that are beyond the reach of machines and humans.

Livestock grazing can lower wildfire risk and reduces the impact of fires by slowing down the speed of spreading flames. Livestock often leave land better than they found it, providing benefits to the state’s watersheds and helping to cultivate healthy soils. An added benefit: they don’t rely on toxic herbicides, petroleum products or chemicals like many fire suppressants.

The California Rangeland Trust, which works with private landholders to keep ranches operating in perpetuity on California’s open space, long has been an advocate of the benefits provided by grazing.

Rangeland conservation supports California’s ranching industry and the state’s economy, and uses tools such grazing to improve climate resiliency at a time when we need solutions most.

While grazing as a tool is well established on California’s private rangelands, it is relatively underutilized on public lands. In fact, despite all the positive benefits, only about 8% of the state’s federally owned land undergoes grazing.

By way of land management and stewardship, ranchers have the chance to serve as valuable partners in fighting California’s wildfires. So let’s partner with one another to ensure that California continues to thrive without worry of the next big fire.

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Mark Nelson, is board chair of California Rangeland Trust, a non-profit organization that works with private landholders to keep ranches operating in perpetuity on California’s open space, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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