Goats are the best tool: grazers in high demand to reduce US wildfire risk

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In the face of climate change and deadly fires, states from California to Colorado are turning hungry animals loose on the countryside

As the western US braces for another wildfire season, following its most devastating on record, public officials and private landowners are turning to an unlikely, rustic tool to manage increasingly incendiary lands.

Goats.

Theyre currently munching away at summer-dried, fire-ready grasses in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada and across California. In some places that outlaw livestock within city limits, officials have even changed local ordinances in order to unpave the way for goat grazers.

Herds chew their way through overgrown grasses and weeds, creating fuel breaks through which wildfires are less likely to burn.

In California, where wildfires have long been a threat, goats have worked for decades to protect coastal communities from creeping conflagrations. But worsening, deadly fire seasons across western US have inspired more communities to try managing their lands not with machines and chemicals, but with hungry animals.

More extreme, climate-changedweather cycles could make fuel management a more important part of wildfire mitigation, as more intense rainy seasons lead to huge spring sprouts in grasslands, that are in turn dried out in the hotter, drier summer sun.

Mike Canadays goats have been eating their way across coastal California for over 15 years, from Santa Rosa, in Wine Country, to San Diego. Between new municipal mandates to clear brush, and an intense rainy season, demand this year was huge, just crazy, he said, and getting bigger all the time.

Theres a lot more awareness just because of the horrific fires weve had lately, said Canaday, who runs a company called Living Systems Land Management. If people want goats, the sooner they can get on somebodys waiting list, the better.

He believes goats are a superior form of fuel management, more sustainable and less risky than herbicides or fuel-powered mowers. And theyre a lot more fun to watch than people with weed eaters.

Grazing goats are far from the newest wildfire prevention tool, but they have a comparably tiny footprint.Theyre efficient, clean eaters, nibbling away at weeds and grasses and leaving far less damage than an herbicide. Theyre nimble climbers, able to scamper up steep flammable hillsides and into narrow canyons that humans would struggle to reach. Theyre impervious to poison oak, and they dont disrupt natural ecosystems or scare away indigenous animals. Where conspicuously carved fire breaks on verdant hillsides might upset homeowners, goats are welcome seasonal cuteness.

Laguna Beach was previously home to grazing cattle that naturally mowed the tall grasses. The city has now relied on goats for fuel management for nearly 20 years. Its a way for us to try to protect the community at a cost that the community can afford, said Laguna Beach fire marshall Jim Brown.

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A herd of goats was brought in to the Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC, not for wildfire management, but to help remove invasive species. Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPA

In its 2019 wildfire safety report, released in July, officials estimated a human crew costs roughly $28,000 to clear an acre, while a goat crew costs an average of $500. The city currently has two herds of 300 goats each working away over the majority of its overgrown lands, which Brown hopes to clear before the traditional fire season starts this summer.

Its especially critical after a wet year like this one, he said.

The west cannot survive on goats alone, in part because of the limited labor pool, and in part because fuel management isnt enough to abate wildfire impacts. Goats are effective, but they cant do anything about flammable wood shingle roofs or cedar siding on ageing buildings that are not subject to new fire safety codes.

We have a lot of tools in the toolbox, said Brown. And when it comes to clearing the fuel that could send flames rushing toward those old, flammable homes, the goats are just the best tool we have in the toolbox to do that theres just nothing better.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/12/goats-are-the-best-tool-grazers-in-high-demand-to-reduce-us-wildfire-risk

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