Local experts propose targeted grazing to protect California from wildfires
When drifting clouds dapple the sky and vibrant wildflowers—tickled pink buds, honey-hued petals and virent stems—awaken in the verdant fields of Table Mountain, explorers quicken their pace. They spot trickling streams and grazing cattle. Occasionally, they look straight down, turning anxious eyes to their mud-slicked heels—did they step in one of the fertile cow-pie mines littered across the landscape?
That may seem a nuisance, but it’s a necessity. Tracy Schohr, a livestock and natural resources adviser for University of California Cooperative Extension, said the natural magic of the popular Butte County recreational spot is made possible because of a long-standing grazing program. “If cattle were not actually on Table Mountain Ecological Reserve,” she said, “essentially those invasive species would choke out those native plants, and they wouldn’t be there.”
Targeted grazing—in which sheep, goats and cattle mow down grasses, weeds and invasive species in specific spots, as the hoofed workers at Table Mountain do—is an element of what Schohr calls the land management “toolbox.” It’s part of an equation to not only foster environmental resiliency and respect the livelihood of ranchers, but also to protect communities and decrease fire risk.
“If we reduce the amount of vegetation that is there through livestock grazing,” Schohr explained, “we can reduce the amount of fuels that would be available to help a fire spread and carry and build up intensity.”
While targeted grazing is certainly not a panacea, when combined with other tools—such as prescribed fires and forest thinning—it can make a difference. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Rangeland Applications, titled “Livestock Grazing Effects on Fuel Loads for Wildland Fire in Sagebrush Dominated Ecosystems,” found that grazing can reduce fire loads, fire ignition potential and spread, and even decrease fire hazard in future seasons if timed appropriately.
In the past, grazing was misunderstood and primarily viewed as destructive, said Dave Daley, a fifth-generation Butte County cattleman and associate dean of Chico State’s College of Agriculture. He credits changing perspectives to the development of grazing science, fueled by people such as Schohr and Kate Wilkin, a UC Cooperative Extension forestry, fire science and natural resource adviser for Butte, Yuba, Sutter and Nevada counties. (Schohr covers Butte, Plumas and Sierra counties.)
Wilkin said that there has been a long history of grazing in the West, dating to the 1700s. Livestock historically overwhelmed the environment, causing degradation to wetlands and meadows especially. Using animals in a targeted way, however, can reduce fire risk without destroying the natural landscape, Wilkin said.
When fire fuel loads are left unchecked, they can lead to catastrophic wildfires. From Daley’s perspective, the Thomas Fire—which ripped through more than 280,000 acres of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and destroyed more than 1,000 structures in December 2017—is a perfect case study on what can happen when there is a lack of prescribed burning and targeted grazing.
“Frankly, our problem was we didn’t manage it when we could have,” Daley said.
In Northern California communities like Chico, at a low elevation of 200 feet, Wilkin envisions targeted grazing as a way to create fire breaks, or gaps in vegetation that can slow down or even stop the progression of a wildfire. It would start with individual homeowners, creating buffers around the perimeter of their property, then utilizing “grazer or browser livestock” in cooperation with their neighbors.
Wilkin added that there’s a lively debate about land management in certain areas of California, like the chaparral biome in the region decimated by the Thomas Fire. Natural habitat has to be protected, as well. “There’s this real tension between reducing too much fuel in some areas and these other natural benefits or ecosystems that we’re also interested in.”
Though it’s following on the heels of last year’s disastrous, fatal wildfires, Schohr said she’s been encouraged that land management appears to be receiving greater precedence at the state level: Gov. Jerry Brown has launched a forest health initiative, aiming to funnel $96 million toward improving the condition of California’s forests and reducing fire risk.
The problem Daley sees, however, is that significant barriers remain for ranchers who want to be part of the solution. There is a lot of ungrazed land in California that remains inaccessible because of urbanization and state regulations, he said.
“Between everything from the economy for livestock production to government restrictions to the whole permitting process, a lot of the small ranchers are now gone,” Daley said. “There’s places that, for whatever reason, they’ve eliminated grazing. Maybe it was a riparian zone issue, maybe it was an endangered species. … Pretty soon, it’s [going to become] no longer economically viable.”
Daley said public agencies and the private sector need to work together to find more places to clear out brush and open up grazing after prescribed fires.
Wilkin expressed excitement about the forest health initiative, which has a lofty goal of doubling the pace and scale of fire reduction treatment from 250,000 acres to 500,000 acres per year.
“We have incredibly strong evidence that humans can alter fire and can be a driver of that, for better or for worse,” Wilkin said. “We can use the tools in our toolbox; we can change the way fire behaves in our landscape, despite climate change.”