Targeted Cattle Grazing Quickly Contains Wildfires

This was a t-shirt design I made maybe 15 years ago when I was doing workshops on how livestock could be used as firefighters.

Back in 1997 when I first began my research project on the logistics of using goats to create firebreaks to protect homes in wildland areas, I dreamed that one day, livestock would become an important part of our firefighting toolbox. As I continued my work, my dream expanded beyond goats to what seemed a bigger, better tool: cattle. And now, my dream is coming true!

Cattle grazing firebreaks on landscapes invaded by cheatgrass have successfully contained three rangeland wildfires in four years in the Great Basin – the latest being the Welch wildfire near Elko, Nevada, on July 18.

The firebreaks are part of a study by USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) using targeted cattle grazing to create fuel breaks to slow wildfire spread. Projects begin in early spring, and target cheatgrass, a fuel known for it’s explosive fire behavior when dry. Cattle graze wide strips of cheatgrass down to 2- to 3-inch stubble, in locations where preventing wildfire spread is important for protecting lives and homes, wildlife habitat, and rangeland health.

“These fuel breaks are intended to slow a fire’s rate of spread, make it less intense, and provide time and space for firefighters to arrive and more safely attack and contain the fire,” explained ARS rangeland scientist Pat Clark with the Northwest Watershed Research Center in Boise, Idaho, who directs the project.

That’s just what appears to have happened for the Welch fire. Before it reached the grazed fuel break, the Welch fire generally had 2- to 4-foot high flames and was spreading at a rate of about a quarter of a mile an hour according to the fire report. After burning into the fuel break, flames dropped to less than 2 feet high and the fire’s spread slowed to less than 330 feet per hour. That gave firefighters time to get to the site and work to prevent further spread. If the fuel break had not been there and it had been windier, this wildfire could have escaped and burned several thousand to tens of thousands of acres within the South Tuscarora Range.

Fenceline contrast showing the grazed firebreak on the left and the burned area from the Welch fire on the right.

The ARS study is evaluating targeted grazing at nine sites throughout the northern Great Basin in Idaho, Oregon and Nevada. All of these cheatgrass-dominated landscapes at all these sites are at high risk of fire, but the Nevada fuel breaks are the only ones that have been directly tested by wildfires. In addition to the Welch fire, another near fire Near Beowawe, Nevada, in August 2020, was limited to just 54 acres by a cattle-grazed fire break. This compares positively to fires that more commonly race across thousands of acres of the Great Basin each summer. In July 2018, the same targeted grazing fuel break held the Boulder Creek fire to just 1,029 acres and kept the fire out of sage-grouse habitat just downwind.

What Will We Learn From These Studies?

Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is an invasive cool season annual grass that came to this country in the late 1800s. Today, it dominates more than 100 million acres of the Great Basin in the western U.S. Germinating each fall and winter, cheatgrass grows rapidly in spring when it can be a valuable and nutritious early season forage. The challenge for managing it with grazing is that it senesces quickly, leaving the range carpeted in golden dry tinder, easily sparked into flames. Because of this, the Great Basin typically has the nation’s highest wildfire risk and most years rangeland fires outpace forest fires in acreage destroyed. Photo from Pat Clark.

Clark’s research is tracking how much fuel is reduced by targeted grazing in the spring when the cheatgrass is most palatable to cattle. He’s also monitoring how long the fuel load reductions last, and what effects grazing has on plant diversity. This will help us understand when and where to locate targeted grazing projects and what to do to mitigate any unexpected or undesirable vegetation changes.

The study is also revealing a lot about the logistics and challenges of managing cattle as targeted grazers. The principal goals of targeted grazing are to reduce fine fuel height and loading in the fuel-break strip and maintain fine fuels reduction up to the start of the wildfire season. That means that, while dormant-season grazing might help reduce the height and fuel loads from the previous summer, spring grazing is critical to success. Cheatgrass has a very short period of palatability, so graziers need to be ready with their stock as soon as soon as it begins to green up. In addition, since green up might happen at a different every year, both producers and land managers must be flexible in their grazing schedules and stocking rates.

Another challenge for the targeted grazing projects is keeping all the livestock focused on the strips and grazing down to the 2 to 3 inch goal stubble height. In Nevada, one firebreak was completely fenced so that the intense livestock use could be easily managed. In other places, riders are staying with the cattle to herd them as they work. Participants are continuing to look at other management options.

Mike Pellant, retired BLM range ecologist says, that fuels management is a large part of the solution to reducing the size of fires on rangelands. “The only ubiquitous fuels manager on this land is the livestock that graze it,” Pellant says. “So the challenge, can we marshal those livestock into strategically doing fuels work, it’s going to have a huge impact on the scale of the wildfires happening here now. I think there’s a lot of promise.”

How Can You Use This Information?

Pat Clark is looking for locations in Wyoming, Washington and Utah where similar studies can take place. If you’re in one of these states, consider reaching out to him to find out what the criteria are and if you might be able to assist. It’s also helpful to be supportive of the agencies trying to work on grazing management changes that are outside typical regulations. It can be an uphill climb and outside encouragement is important.

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