fire and fuels management

Grazing Goats for Fire Safety

One of the more common questions I’m getting these days is: what do you think about all this goat grazing for fuels reduction? I suspect the questions are coming to me because folks want to hear about my ecological perspective about goat grazing effects. There are other concerns, and I try to wrap those into this essay.

Goat Grazing Benefits

Grazing goats can produce many benefits from food and fiber production to wildfire fuels reduction, invasive species control, ecological restoration, and endangered species recovery. Goat meat is popular in many different people’s cuisines, and raising goats locally reduces transportation costs and resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Many have criticized the beef industry for greenhouse gas emissions impacts, this might be a better solution for those who desire meat as part of their diet. Goat hair (angora, cashmere, etc) is a useful fiber in place of sheep’s wool, and goat skins are used to create and repair drums and banjos. Is anyone doing these kinds of things with the herds of goats used for fuels reduction?

Goat herds are mainly being used for reducing the fuel loads that could make wildfires more catastrophic. Goats are useful in this way as they readily eat brush as well as grass. Sheep, cows and horses mainly eat grass, though they’ll nibble at shrubs, too.  Goats like to eat shrubs so much that they will get on their hind legs and pull at branches as far up as they can reach. They’ll even climb trees!

Properly managed goats can help to reduce the cover and reproduction of invasive plants, including shrubby species. Goats can reduce thistle patches, mow down infestations of invasive grasses, and tear up French broom. These things qualify as ecological restoration, but goats can do more than just this…

By properly managing goats, we can help to restore evolutionary grazing disturbance regimes on which ecosystems and endangered species depend. By reducing the growth of grasses, or the thatch that grasses make, goat grazing can facilitate the germination and survival of wildflowers, which also helps restore pollinators. By grazing brush, goats can keep coastal prairies more open, conserving habitat for grassland dependent birds, such as black shouldered kite, burrowing owl, and grasshopper sparrow. When livestock reduces thatch in grasslands, grasses are less competitive and wildflowers flourish; so, endangered butterflies like Bay checkerspot which depends on wildflowers can thrive.

Cautions about Goat Grazing

Note that I’ve said ‘properly managed’ a lot. Saying ‘goat grazing is good’ is like saying ‘weather is good’ – both statements are nonsensical without details. The four variables to control with livestock grazing are seasonality, intensity, duration, and frequency. Grazing in the winter growing season can help reduce the growth of cool-wet-season grasses and so favor wildflowers (and thistles!). Putting many, many goats in an area is more intense than just a few. Putting many, many goats in an area for a long period of time is more impactful than a short period of time. Returning a herd of goats to an area more- versus less-frequently makes a difference. I just witnessed a recently goat-grazed public park area near San Rafael where there was almost no grass left and the oak and eucalyptus trees had been moderately damaged by goats gnawing through bark. Grazing goats in the early summer certainly made sense to reduce the potential for soil compaction and erosion on the steep slopes I was visiting. But, on the ungrazed adjoining areas, native tarplants were in blossom – I’m not sure if those will come back in the goat grazed area so that pollinators will have something to visit. Small oak trees that had goat munched bark scars from the previous year were dying or dead. I questioned not only the need to graze the ground so hard as to negatively affect native trees, but I also questioned the health and welfare of the animals: was it necessary to make those animals very, very hungry to eat the grass down to near dirt and then start gnawing on tree bark?

Other cautions about goat grazing I wonder about: flies, manure, and weeds. Do communities near goat grazing areas get more flies, even biting flies? Does the manure wash off the grazed barrens and into streams and cause pollution? Are the goats transporting weed seeds onto the property from an area they grazed right before they were temporarily transported for fire control? All good cautions to ask about when reviewing the costs vs. the benefits of goat grazing.

The last caution I have is about training mountain lions to eat goats. I’ve heard too many folks raising goats blame the mountain lions for the loss of their animals when the fault almost certainly lies with careless livestock managers. Proper protection includes guardian dogs, electric fencing, and lion-proof night pens. When folks don’t properly protect goats, mountain lions figure out a way to eat them…and then become accustomed to those easy meals. At that point, the human has effectively trained the mountain lion to eat livestock and then there’s a problem.

Challenges Ahead

It seems that goat grazing is an expanding enterprise for fuels reduction, so how do we make it work better? Part of the solution is already on the table: all livestock grazing programs must be approved by a state-licensed Certified Rangeland Manager. This is a parallel program to the Registered Professional Forester who signs off on any timber production in California. A Certified Rangeland Manager has the skills to outline a plan to maximize the benefits and minimize the problems of a goat grazing operation.

Even with a good plan, there are significant challenges ahead for goat-led habitat and fuels management. For instance, given the oversight needed for each herd, how do we afford the shepherds and still affordably manage goats? Goats are escape artists, so shepherds are necessary to keep them contained and well supervised, if only to assure that areas don’t get overgrazed and the goats stay healthy and safe. We need to find the right way for shepherds to have a good standard of living and decent working hours in an economy that already has a difficult time paying a living wage. If we can find and keep the labor, how do we train enough people to pay enough attention to the nuances of habitat management so that we restore habitats instead of destroy them while we seek a more fire-safe landscape?

In Conclusion

Next time you see goats arrive to do some work, I’m hoping you ask some of the questions I posed above. Only by having respectful dialogues about these issues can we hope to find the ‘right’ place for goat powered fuels reduction and habitat restoration. Such conversations can elevate the intelligence of all parties as we seek a better way to live on this super biologically diverse, fire prone landscape.

-this content originally published at Bruce Bratton’s wonderful weekly blog: BrattonOnline.com sign up now and save on the already low, low price of nothing (donations welcomed).