Livestock grazing helps California tackle wildfires

Research by University of California Cooperative Extension personnel shows that rangeland doesn't need to be "rested" following a fire.

January 23, 2019

4 Min Read
Livestock grazing helps California tackle wildfires
UCCE specialist Lynn Huntsinger suggested cattle may be viewed as a team of firefighters.University of California

California is searching for solutions to the wildfire crisis, and livestock ranchers believe they can help, according to an announcement from the University of California Division of Agriculture & Natural Resources.

At the 14th annual Rangeland Summit in Stockton, Cal., in January, more than 150 ranchers, public land managers and representatives of nonprofit organizations that work on land conservation gathered to share research and experiences that outline the value of cattle and sheep grazing on rangeland, the university said.

Since California was settled by Europeans, cattle and sheep have been an integral part of the state's history.

“Cattle can control brush,” Lynn Huntsinger, University of California Cooperative Extension specialist at the University of California-Berkeley, said in a presentation on brush management. She discussed research she conducted in the early 1980s to understand the role of cattle in Sierra Nevada brush control.

“We need to make livestock into firefighters,” she said. “Constant, deliberate, targeted grazing is needed for fire management.”

However, thick, overgrown brush requires intensive treatment that cattle can't handle on their own. “You have to start from a good place,” Huntsinger said. “Start early, such as post-fire. Plan when you have a blank slate for the forest you want.”

The tragic loss of homes and lives to wildfires in the last few years has increased public demand for answers and action. However, the reasons for the greater frequency and intensity of wildfires are not well understood, the university said.

“Is it climate change? Past decisions? Land use? What can we do about it? Research,” Cooperative Extension specialist Van Butsic added.

At the summit, Butsic presented the results of his recent research to determine if ownership has an impact upon whether land will burn. He and his colleagues studied the burn histories of forest and rangeland areas that were matched with the same characteristics except in ownership.

“We controlled for all factors: slope, elevation, the likelihood of ignition,” he said. “We found that, on forest and rangeland, federal ownership led to 0.3% higher fire probability. Ownership is dwarfing the impact of climate change.”

There is still much more research to be done. “We can't say the impact of grazed versus ungrazed land,” Butsic said. “We also need to look at fire severity as well as fire frequency.”

Laura Snell, Cooperative Extension advisor in Modoc County, Cal., shared preliminary results at the rangeland summit that provide information for landowners who need to make decisions about returning livestock to burned areas.

She and a team of colleagues studied the fire history of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management rangeland in Lassen and Modoc counties, where fires had burned through the area five, 10 and 15 years earlier. The data set included information about whether the land was “rested” for two years after the fire or whether livestock were returned to graze soon after the blaze.

The scientists set out to determine whether fire intensity and climate at the site (measured by soil temperature and moisture) had an impact on the future diversity of plant species and growth of cheat grass, an invasive species that animals don't like. “No matter what we did -- graze or not graze -- after 15 years, the species richness stayed the same,” Snell said. “Grazing was not the driving factor.”

The results are also important in terms of fuel accumulation and the prevention of future wildfires.

“Federal land managers have typically used a policy to rest the land for two years after a fire. During the interval, the fuels sometimes burn again, and livestock producers have to wait another two years,” Snell said. “Our research showed you don't necessarily need to rest the land after the fire.”

Two ranchers who were recently affected by wildfire presented their experiences and perspectives during the rangeland summit.

Mike Williams of Diamond W Cattle Co. had livestock on 6,500 acres of leased land in Ventura County, Cal., when the Thomas Fire ignited on Dec. 4, 2017. For more than a month, the fire burned 281,893 acres and consumed 1,000 structures. Williams had stockpiled feed on certain pastures by limiting grazing, which, during the fire, turned into hazardous fuel.

Adam Cline, rangeland manager for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Preserve in the Capay Valley, Cal., had a similar experience when the County Fire burned more than 90,000 acres in western Yolo and eastern Napa counties in June and July 2018. To reserve feed for later, Cline had left 2,500 lb. per acre of residual dry matter on grazing land as a drought mitigation strategy. He said he plans to reconsider this grazing plan.

“Now, cattle feed looks like a lot of fuel,” he said.

Source: University of California Division of Agriculture & Natural Resources, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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