Less than a quarter mile down the East Ridge Trail in Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park, I hear the animals through the pine trees, a cacophony of almost human-like voices raised together. The netting of an electric fence comes into view around a bend. Then I see them—hundreds of goats and sheep corralled together, bleating, chomping on dry grass, leaves, and shrubs.
The East Bay Regional Park District uses the animals to remove the highly flammable grass and brush that often contribute to the spread of wildfires. Together, the two herbivores, each specializing in slightly different plants, will clear out much of the enclosure within hours. This herd of goats and sheep, ruminants that were domesticated thousands of years ago, may represent an important firefighting tool in the 21st century.
Last fall, the North Bay experienced its worst fires in decades. This year, the Mendocino Complex fire, which has burned over 350,000 acres of land, at the time of printing, became the largest wildfire in the state’s history. Wildfires are worsening in the state, and climate change is increasing their ferocity and intensity, says Cal Fire. But human management of the landscape has also contributed to the problem. In particular, a century of fire suppression has allowed flammable material to collect.
Some land managers now argue that to minimize the risk of catastrophic fires in the future, we have to periodically disturb the landscape and remove tinder and kindling before too much accumulates. The shift to a preemptive approach has been a long time coming. “The adoption of this prevention philosophy in the public discourse has been slow,” Kristen Van Dam, who assists with the development, coordination, and implementation of the fuel management program at the East Bay Regional Park District, told me. Really, it should have happened 20 years ago, she says. But it’s been hindered by a lack of education about the fire-adapted ecosystem we inhabit and a lack of awareness about the unintended perils of fire suppression.
Which brings us back to the herd of goats and sheep in Redwood Regional Park. They won’t solve all our problems; they’re just one vegetation management tool in a firefighting tool kit that also includes clearing, mowing, and prescribed burns. If deployed improperly, they can damage ecosystems and harm vulnerable plants and animals. But as land managers try to imagine a more fire-resilient landscape, they’re increasingly interested in using grazing for proactive fire control.
Melanie Parker, deputy director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, says that the funding allotted to grazing has steadily increased in recent years, now accounting for half the money going to fuel management. Van Dam told me the park district has signed as many grazing contracts with companies that rent herds of goats and sheep as it can. But demand for the animals already seems to be outstripping supply. The number of these outfits—including GoatsRUs, City Goats, and Star Creek Land Stewards Inc.—is limited in the Bay Area. “We have kind of hit a ceiling in how much goat grazing we can do,” says Van Dam.
The advantages of employing ruminants for this purpose can be numerous. A single 100-pound goat can consume about 12 pounds of green brush in a day. A 170-strong herd can clear out 2,000 pounds of brush in one day. Standing on their back legs, they can stretch their necks up to 7 feet high, removing low-lying leaves and branches from trees. Unlike cattle, which prefer grasses and forbs, goats browse; they eat a wider variety of plant material, including tree leaves and brush. And unlike with controlled fires—another method of removing fuel—land managers can deploy the animals in areas with human infrastructure nearby. The animals can also go where people don’t, like into dense stands of poison oak.
“Goats are useful because they are low-impact in comparison with heavy equipment and can get into areas that would be hazardous for human workers,” Van Dam says. But the animals aren’t allowed in areas where grazing might harm rare plants, she adds, like Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve.
During spring and summer months, the park district uses goats to help maintain a decades-old fuel break that runs along the hills between El Cerrito and San Leandro. The animals graze in various spots between Point Pinole Regional Shoreline on the East Bay’s northern tip and Lake Chabot in the south. The goal is to protect the thousands of people and millions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure in the area stretching between Richmond and Castro Valley. At any given time, at least 1,600 goats, 1,500 sheep, and 6,000 cattle are munching on vegetation across half of the district’s 73 parks.
Some firefighters say that as part of a multipronged strategy, the animals do help. In this summer’s Mendocino Complex fire, for example, it was evident that structures with a 100-foot “defensible space” around them, maintained by grazing or other methods of clearing, were less likely to burn, Brian Cordeiro, a veteran firefighter and fire captain of the East Bay Regional Park District, told me. He has supervised grazing for fuel management across the district’s parks for 15 years. “Goat-grazing really works well in grasslands,” he said. “We know it works.”
In earlier eras, many environmentalists looked askance at grazing, and with good reason. Overgrazing has contributed to desertification around the world, causing soil erosion and biodiversity loss. This destructive legacy is one reason that in the late 1990s two environmental groups brought a legal suit against EBRPD, which was already using grazing at that point, pushing for the district to review its grazing program under the California Environmental Quality Act. The district had used grazing by cattle, goats, and sheep for years to reduce the risk of fire.
The suit charged that careless grazing, particularly by cattle, was destroying native grasslands. The plaintiffs, the Alameda Creek Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity, lost the suit. EBRPD didn’t stop grazing. But the district said it reappraised its methods in an effort to use grazing more responsibly.
Over time, the arguments around grazing have shifted, becoming more nuanced. Simply letting cows, sheep or goats loose for months at a time can, indeed, lead to ecological destruction. But animals grazing in a controlled fashion at specific times of year —like the goats and sheep I saw—can have the opposite effect, some argue; they can remove invasive weeds and actually increase biodiversity.
Some research indicates that the decline of grazers on the Bay Area landscape may have increased the risk of fires. In a 2005 study, Jon Keeley, a fire ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, found that ending cattle grazing in parts of the East Bay during the late 20th century allowed shrublands to expand, increasing the intensity of fires. Removing grazers had played a greater role in exacerbating fire hazard, Keeley argued, than the fire suppression practices that get so much blame.
The day after I visited Redwood Regional Park, part of the herd I saw was headed to the Skyline Serpentine Prairie, to help in a decade-long experiment to restore native grassland. Both nonnative fennel and French broom have declined since the animals arrived, Denise Defreese, manager of the wildland vegetation program for EBRPD, told me. The removal of dead, dry thatch makes space for native plants, she says. Grazing has helped nudge the grassland back toward a healthier state. The animals provide the disturbance that so many Bay Area ecosystems seem to need in order to remain healthy and diverse.
Jim Hanson, conservation chair of the California Native Plant Society’s East Bay chapter, sounds a more cautious note. Yes, grazing can help grasslands, he says, but a qualified range manager needs to carefully oversee the process. And in his view, it’s too early to say if the goats, which first arrived at the Serpentine Prairie in the summer of 2014, are really helping.
Another concern with ruminants generally is that they burp methane, a greenhouse gas that has about 30 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide. And the tougher their food, the more methane they emit as they digest it. Meaning that ruminants eating highly fibrous grass, weeds, and brush could contribute to the very problem—climate change—that’s worsening fires to begin with. On the other hand, by preventing large, all-consuming wildfires, ruminants could theoretically prevent more greenhouse gas emissions than they cause. To my knowledge, no one has conducted a benefit-cost analysis of using grazers for fire control that looks at these nuances.
And in extreme conditions, clearing fuel, whether by grazing, machinery, or human hand, probably won’t help. When the Tubbs fire struck last year, winds were gusting up to 70 miles per hour. The combination of dry conditions and fierce winds—often called Diablo or devil winds—drove home an important lesson, says Brandon Collins, a research scientist with UC Berkeley’s Center for Fire Research and Outreach and the U.S. Forest Service.
“When you have wind pushing fire in that manner, there’s not a whole lot you can do from a managing vegetation standpoint,” he says. Firebreaks probably won’t help much. After all, the Tubbs fire at one point blew across Highway 101, normally considered a good firebreak.
What to do? The conversation about fire protection should move beyond just managing fuels, Collins says, to “hardening” buildings by making them fire-resistant. “Beyond that, the next-best thing would be early detection of both extreme weather events and fire ignitions,” he told me, “so people can get out.”