Crews seek more success saving homes in Calif fire

Grazing goats helping fire defense

11 May 2013

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USA — For the last three weeks, 1,400 goats have been munching away, acre by acre, on a small part of the Cleveland National Forest.

It’s an experiment by the forest service to see how effective big-time goat grazing can be in clearing fuel breaks. It turns out the answer is “pretty darn effective.”

Ray Holes owns Prescriptive Livestock Services, a company from Washington state that specializes in one thing — delivering hungry goats to areas that need clearing. The company’s motto: “Targeted Grazing Specialists.” The $45,000 experiment is ongoing on a 100-acre fuel break area next to the very eastern edge of San Diego Country Estates in southeast Ramona and near the community of Barona Mesa. It’s an area that fits the classic descriptive phrase, favored by firefighting and land management types, of “wildland-urban interface.”

That’s where the wild forest meets suburban sprawl in a valley that looks very much like a funnel for fire.

On Thursday, Holes’ 1,400 goats grazed on the scrub oak and chamise on Barona Mesa. The Country Estates lay to the north.

The goats were contained inside an portable electric fence, surrounding two or three acres, that is moved every few days. The idea is to concentrate all the goats in one area and let them chow down. The goats are quiet, unlike pet goats, because they know that noise would make them targets of a hungry coyote or mountain lion.

Four Anatolian shepherd dogs patrol the perimeter like alert sentries as they guard the goats.

The project, Holes said, is going well and should be completed within another week. The only hiccup so far was when a military helicopter flew low overhead a few days back, scaring the bejesus out of the goats and causing them to lose their appetite for a bit.

Goats will not, despite popular mythology, eat anything, Holes said. The animal has a large liver that allows it to process different types of plants better than most species.

“But they’re just like us,” Holes said. “There are things they like. When they first unload, they’ll eat a little bit of everything and then they’ll settle into the things they like.”

Joan Friedlander, the district ranger for the Palomar Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest, said the goats are another tool in the forest service’s toolbox.

“It’s not something we’re going to use all the time or in all the places,” she said. But the goats could prove very handy, especially in more remote areas where it would be difficult to use more conventional methods to clear brush, she said.

The fuel break area that the goats are now clearing was worked on just two years ago. Everything they are eating is pretty low to the ground. It’s unknown, Friedlander said, as to whether the goats would be effective in areas of denser foliage that hadn’t burned or been managed for years.

It’s costing between $400 and $500 an acre to use goat power, as opposed to nearly triple that for more common, labor-intensive methods of brush clearing, Friedlander said.

“Certainly what we can tell from this project is they can easily maintain a fuel break, and so far it is cost-efficient,” she said. To clear a fuel break normally means lots of manpower, chain saws and piles of brush that then must be burned safely, Friedlander said.

With goats, the only thing that’s left are thousands and thousands of droppings. Which brings up an interesting point: Holes’ company owns 9,000 goats that travel all over the western United States. He trucked in the 1,400 to Ramona so they could start work April 23.

After the goats have feasted in one area, they have to be purged of all that grub in them before being allowed to go somewhere else. That way they don’t bring nonnative seeds, contained in their poop, into new areas. Basically, Holes said, the goats aren’t fed for a couple of days until their systems are cleaned out.

Friedlander said she was worried that area residents, some of whose homes sit just feet from where the goats were eating a couple of weeks ago, might complain about the smell or noise or something else. Instead, she said, the locals like the goats, and the forest service has even been told that the Estates would like to continue the partnership on other portions of the community.

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