Livestock grazing seen as key tool to combat wildfire threat
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.