Devouring fire risk: Goats munching on dry vegetation just east of Tahoe
Hundreds of goats are devouring everything in sight on 100 acres just east of the Lake Tahoe Basin to mitigate the risk of a wildfire exploding through dry, flammable terrain.
The Nevada Division of Forestry and NV Energy have partnered to remove fuel and reduce the risk of wildfire using targeted goat grazing. The 100-acre project is off U.S. Highway 50 in the Clear Creek watershed, in an “extreme wildfire risk area.”
“It’s not a matter of if it burns, it is a matter of when it burns,” said Anna Higgins, resource management officer of Nevada Division of Forestry and added that the area they are working on hasn’t burned in over 100 years. “To reduce the impact, we need to reduce the fuels.”
The project is funded half by NV Energy’s Natural Disaster Protection Plan and half by the Senate Bill 508 which helps fund fuels mitigation work.
The bill allotted funds to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for wildfire prevention, restoration and long-term planning.
Mark Regan, wildfire mitigation specialist for NV Energy, explained that if a fire broke out in this location, it would travel quickly due to the types of fuels present.
Regan says that this specified location is particularly important because above the fuels, there are power lines.
There is a history of several fires around the area and the communities just below in Carson City would be immediately threatened and Tahoe residents would be on alert if a fire ignited.
The terrain is steep and rugged which would make it difficult for personnel to navigate with heavy machinery. In a “This is believed this is the first use of goats for wildfire mitigation by an electric utility in Nevada,” Regan said.
The roughly 350 hungry goats came from Denton and Shari Cook of Smith Valley, Nev. The duo has worked in the ranching industry their entire lives and now shifted their skills to help with fire mitigation.
The Cooks own High Desert Graziers which is a targeted grazing service that uses goats to reduce weeds and wildfire fuels.
The goats are between 1-3 years old. They are Spanish Goats from the Kensing lineage meaning they were specially bred to eat vegetation in all types of terrain.
This type of grazing doesn’t have any known harmful impacts to the goats and Denton Cook says that these goats get benefits from the shrubs they consume.
He says that if given the free range, the goats could cover 4-5 miles in a day, but for the project these goats are confined to a fenced-in 6-acre parcel.
Cook says the goats can eat 5-6 pounds of vegetation a day. The goat’s stomach acids also kill the seeds so there will not be any regrowth from their droppings.
The goats consume native grasses and shrubs including sagebrush, bitterbrush, manzanita along with
Cheatgrass which is a non-native grass introduced from Asia and is especially flammable.
Cheatgrass can cause fire to rapidly move into rangelands and forests.
While sheep have been used to reduce fuels around Nevada and California for years, goats will eat just about everything including dry weeds and Cheatgrass which sheep can’t eat.
They even eat pine needles and the fuel from pine trees and Cook says that they are looking to expand this fire mitigation treatment into the Lake Tahoe Basin.
Each night after a long day of consuming, the goats are herded by two border collies into their sleeping pens. They are guarded by their protector dog named “Ziva” who is Kangal, a dog breed from Turkey that specializes in protection from predators. The Cooks also use “Fox Lights,” an electrical fence and even put on talk radio to keep other wildlife away at night.
Regan, Higgins and the Cooks agree that goat grazing is sustainable, ecologically beneficial and cost effective for reducing the risk of wildfire.
Using goat grazing for treatment in this area reduces the use and possible risk of ignition from gas powered-mechanical equipment. If the fire danger is high, a fire engine must be present in case the heavy machinery ignites a spark.
“We don’t need to worry about that with the goats,” Regan said.
Using goats for fuel reduction also costs significantly less than other methods.
For the 100-acre area, the goats cost about $1,000 a day. They will be grazing away for another 60-80 days depending on the weather.
Regan says they hope to expand treatment across Nevada and will continue to work with foresters and land managers.
He said, “Wildland fire is the highest natural disaster risk to Nevada.”
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