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Firefighting Goats (and other Livestock Too!)

By   /  September 16, 2013  /  1 Comment

From 1997 to 2003, Kathy Voth directed a research project using goats to create firebreaks to protect homes and firefighters from wildland fires. These excerpts from the federal Joint Fire Science Program’s “Fire Science Brief” on her project describes the project and its findings. Thanks to Rachel Clark for putting this brief together! Learn what goats can accomplish and why other livestock are good firefighters too!

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Goats at work in oakbrush.  Photo by Sean Hammond

Goats at work in oakbrush. Photo by Sean Hammond

Fire prevention in the WUI (Wildland Urban Interface) can be a delicate and sometimes complicated process. Residents may have concerns about prescribed fire, and its perceived or real risks, as well as the potential for reductions in air quality. Using fire in the WUI can be a challenge due to those risks. Furthermore, other solutions, may also be less than desirable for residents. Applying herbicides, for instance, may raise the concerns of the community, while mechanical thinning may be expensive and difficult, especially in hard to reach places.

That’s where Kathy Voth comes in.  Her work with goat herds to reduce and prevent wildfire provides another option for fuel managers. Goats naturally and cheaply do with gusto, what humans have set up enormous and costly infrastructures to deal with—namely manage fire-suppressed wildlands to prevent damage to homes, wildlife and wildlands, and people. Goats vigorously eat fire prone vegetation like oakbrush, while trampling parts of the area to bare dirt—such areas treated by goats can stop a fire cold. In certain situations, goats may be able to save money, while creating new and effective ways of managing fire-prone landscapes.

House surrounded by fire-prone brush. Photo by Kathy Voth

House surrounded by fire-prone brush. Photo by Kathy Voth

Voth’s project began when she met Joel Godfrey who worked at Utah National Guard’s Camp Williams Training Facility.  “This place was a wildfire waiting to happen,” says Voth. “There are suburbs around it, thick vegetation, and accidental fires from artillery practice.” She and Godfrey recognized this fire risk, and began talking about ways to reduce that risk. Meanwhile, they also got to talking about goats (Voth had a pet goat, and both were interested in using goats as pack animals). It was in that conversation—set amid the fire-prone Camp Williams Base—that the two hatched the plan to wed goats to the landscape with the intent of curbing fire danger.

Their idea was supported by previous research on goats in fire management, some of which recalls Voth, “showed that if you graze goats on oakbrush three times in a season, the phenotype of the brush actually changes.” It goes from very dense, very fire prone material, to little stands of separate brush or “park-like” stands. Essentially the goat grazing changes the brush from dense shrubs to a mosaic of patches that are, she says, “better for people and wildlife.”

Godfrey and Voth began the project using bits of funding left over from other projects at Camp Williams and a little out-of-pocket money to support their original herd of 11 goats. After two years of piecemeal funding, they had an armload of knowledge about how to start, maintain, and shepherd a small herd of goats with the specific goal of reducing fire risk. When they received a grant from the JFSP the data gathering aspect of her project achieved a new level.

Photos showing two treatment enclosures before (top) and after (bottom) goat treatment.

Photos showing two treatment enclosures before (top) and after (bottom) goat treatment.

Gathering Data

With a design planned to see whether goats can actually reduce vegetation biomass and subsequent regrowth, the goats began treating different replicated enclosures on the Camp Williams base. Early in the process, the team had results they were excited about. The vegetation reduction experiment, for instance, showed quickly that goats are very successful at reducing biomass. For the 2,000 pounds of goats (about 17 animals) to graze down one paddock to 95 percent of original biomass levels, it took only about 10 to 14 days. That pasture was allowed to regrow for four to five weeks, then goats came in again, and took just a few days to bring the vegetation back down to those levels.

The team also saw dramatic visual changes in the appearance of the vegetation. Plus, they measured more than a 1,000 percent increase of bare ground in the plots. Bare dirt, Voth says, is probably a great “mechanism for slowing or stopping a fire.” But bare dirt rarely stays bare for long. Each year after the goats left and fall precipitation arrived, grasses and forbs resprouted, doing a great job of preventing erosion on the sites and providing important forage in fall and spring for wildlife.

Trial by Fire

ItsNotJustGoats“Then on July 16, 2001 it was like Christmas,” says Voth, referring to the start of an accidental fire on the base. “An artillery training exercise ignited a fire, which spread quickly to where the goats had been working. All of a sudden we had the perfect opportunity to see whether the treatments worked.”

“It was exactly the kind of fire Joel (Godfrey) and I had anticipated on the Base,” she says. “It was an accident, and it spread fast because of the fuel, heat, and wind. Sean Hammond and Nathan Baird who were working the project when the fires started, cut the fences and ran the goats to safety zones, one at an ammunition storage point and another cleared area where firefighters protected them by spraying down nearby vegetation.”

“The fire took four days to burn out and burned vegetation on 12,000 acres.” says Voth, “We had been given this incredible chance to see the huge effect of the goats, even in the comparatively tiny enclosures they had grazed.”

For starters, National Guard staff saw 15-foot flames drop to only 3 feet at the goat-treated sites. The sites stopped the fire completely; they simply didn’t burn. Even areas that had been grazed by the goats a year earlier, did not burn. What’s more, the areas behind the treated plots did not fully burn; they only scorched—further affirming the preventive power of the treatments.

Still it was a big fire and these were comparatively tiny treatments. Voth writes in her CD Handbook, “The small treatments did not stop the fire…indicating that the success of this tool, like any other fire management tool depends on its placement and size.”   [The very latest research on firebreaks shows that they are most effective when firefighters man them to prevent flames from jumping or going around them.]

Final Product

Goat CD ContentsEarly in her efforts Voth found that there were very few sources of information on keeping goats and moving them according to shrub characteristics, let alone, using them to manage the landscape.

“I really wanted to find a way to put all this information into one place, so if anyone wanted to use goats for fire management, their job would be straightforward,” she says.

The result is her handbook on CD “GOATS! For Firesafe Homes in Wildland Areas.”  The purpose of this handbook is to help managers with the “hows” of managing goats for fuel reduction and to provide some information on the results you can expect. To increase the speed with which the industry develops and to ensure that it grows professionally and credibly, (the CD) also contains information to help aspiring goat producers get off the ground.

This 6 minute video is included on the CD Handbook as an introduction to the project and the contents of the CD:

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About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

1 Comment

  1. Jeff Rola says:

    Kathy,

    Your story is telling. The tool of prescribed grazing for wildfire risk reduction has proven effective in dozens of anecdotal instances. BUT, the resistance to a programmatic approach to reduce fuel loads continues.

    I worked in this area from 2000 thru 2006, partly due to the groundbreaking work of you and others.

    Today, pretty much everyone is out of that business, except for a few urban weedeaters who can get “cute” value media and some high dollars for a very short period of time.

    Right now, there aren’t enough goats to keep California, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, etc., from regularly burning up — buy there could be.

    What are your thoughts on building a consortium of producers/service providers to approach this issue from a programmatic landscape scale to get ahead of the wildfire spiral, especially in light of climate change.

    Thanks for giving me the opportunity to spout. What you are doing with this newsletter is awesome.

    Jeff Rola
    541.410.6707

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