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Livestock grazing seen as key tool to combat wildfire threat

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Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

Aaron Gilliam’s home is wherever his flock takes him. Recently, that’s been at the Institute of Noetic Sciences and at McEvoy Ranch, south of Petaluma near the Marin County border.

Gilliam, 36, makes daily rounds of both locations, checking on his herd of 290 sheep to make sure the animals are freely grazing and safe from predators. At night, he sleeps in an RV.

The itinerant shepherd — Gilliam prefers the title “land steward” — owns Sweetgrass Grazing, a private for-hire company that is in hot demand, in the wake of Northern California's rampant wildfires. Private and public landowners, anxious to reduce fire threat on their properties, increasingly are turning to grazing to clear out dry vegetation and create defensible space.

Herds of sheep, goats, cows and other grazing animals dot the landscape, harkening to a time before lawn mowers and string trimmers. There’s “Chasin Goat Grazing of Northern California,” “Wooly Weeders” and “Goats R Us,” to name just a few of the companies offering grazing services.

By the animal or by the acre, there’s now a grazing plan to fit most people’s needs and budgets. But despite growing demand, some land stewards express lingering concern over a dangerous amount of accumulated fuels still posing extreme fire danger in Sonoma County and neighboring communities.

Gilliam sees this firsthand on his daily rounds across mostly backcountry roads tending to his flock.

He said many property owners do the bare minimum to clear defensible space while leaving “acres and acres of overgrown, unmanaged land” unattended. In Gilliam’s mind, that’s nothing more than a “bit of a wish and a hope” in the event of a major inferno.

Interest in grazing as a strategy for combating wildland fires exploded in the aftermath of a wave of destructive Northern California fires, including in Sonoma County, where the 2017 fires burned more than 137 square miles — about 90,000 acres.

“We’re getting more and more people contacting the office saying they want to get grazing going,” said Stephanie Larson, livestock and rangelands manager for the University of California Cooperative Extension in Sonoma and Marin counties.

More than 1 million acres comprise Sonoma County, and of that total, nearly half has potential for grazing, according to Larson. But she said a relatively small fraction of that territory is being managed in that manner. As a result, she said wildland fire danger remains “very high.”

She cited a number of areas of particular concern, including forests in northwest and northeast pockets of the county, and around Lake Sonoma. Dead and dying trees, many from sudden oak disease, plus the spread of less flame-resistant conifers, contribute to the problem.

For some landowners, grazing makes financial sense as a long-term strategy to reduce fire risk. Larson said the costs range from $20 to $40 per acre, or between $12 and $20 a month per “animal unit,” which could be a sheep, goat or cow. Horses and dairy cows typically command more.

The UC Cooperative Extension recently hosted a class on grazing at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm in Forestville. Larson also is compiling a list of grazing contractors statewide.

Gilliam has been hired by Sonoma County Regional Parks for grazing in several parks, including Helen Putnam near Petaluma and along Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail near Sebastopol. The city of Sonoma also hired Sweetgrass Grazing for its Montini Preserve.

Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

Hattie Brown, the natural resources director for regional parks, said grazing is a more natural method of vegetation control, one that mimics historic use of the land. Besides fire-fuel reduction, grazing also can help with biodiversity and sequestration of carbon.

The challenge, Brown said, is finding the “sweet spot” between too much and too little grazing. The former can cause soil erosion and depletion of the soil’s vital nutrients, among other things.

In the Oakmont community near Santa Rosa, grazing has long been a tool for vegetation control. Several homes nevertheless burned in the October 2017 fires, including that of Supervisor Susan Gorin.

Gorin said grazing was no deterrent to flames racing through the canopies of tall trees, including eucalyptus, on a destructive path to her home. But she remains a strong supporter of grazing in the county’s unincorporated lands.

Gorin said grazing “certainly became more relevant after the fires, when we’re looking at different strategies for fuel reduction and recognizing we don’t have enough people to do the work it takes to keep grass down in large expanses.”

Gilliam is booked for months, with the two jobs south of Petaluma totaling more than 60 acres expected to last a month or more.

The former college campus comprising the Institute of Noetic Sciences is situated in a landscape of native forest and grasslands. For years, sheep grazed the 196-acre property in an informal arrangement with shepherds, who were fed in exchange for the service. That ended when the shepherds demanded payment, according to Trecey Chittenden, the institute’s associate director of facilities.

The nonprofit organization subsequently hired Sweetgrass Grazing amid renewed concern about wildfires. Chittenden said another goal is being responsible caretakers of the land.

“Aaron explained to me his knowledge of grazing in a way I’d never heard before,” Chittenden said. “It’s about moving the sheep every year, to cycle them through a fire zone in a certain pattern so native grasses have time to regenerate and come back.”

The effort appears to be paying off. Chittenden said staff last year spotted wildflowers they’d never seen before.

”We were really excited about it,” she said. “It showed me that it (the grazing) actually was making a significant difference.”

For larger jobs, Gilliam rents a tractor-trailer to transport his animals and also subcontracts with other companies. He deploys mobile corrals to keep the animals penned and portable electrified mesh fences to keep predators out. And of course, he has dogs to herd the flock.

His bottom line? When it comes to expense, Gilliam said prevention is much less expensive than the cost of fighting fires.

“What’s the cost of having it all burned?” he said. “That’s the real question.”

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