By LEAH MERRALL
Arizona Sonora News
When Smokey Bear started telling us back in 1944 that only we can prevent forest fires, he wasn’t exactly correct.
Goats can help, too.
In fact, a number of government agencies, including the United States Forest Service, the Arizona State Land Department and the Bureau of Land Management, have used goats as a tool to reduce fire danger.
Dolores Garcia, a spokeswoman at the Arizona Bureau of Land Management and a former fire mitigation specialist, said that goats can be considered for projects just as equally as prescribed-fire, herbicide, machines, or manual removal procedures. Circumstances usually determine which would be most effective.
Each has its pros and cons. Goats are environmentally friendly, potentially less expensive to use, and the goats get a yummy meal out of it. However, goats have the potential to overgraze land, meaning that vegetation can get damaged and the ground can begin to erode, Garcia said.
There is not a lot of hard data that backs up the use of goats to reduce fire, but some government agencies and individual communities clearly have found success.
It takes a whole village – not to raise a child, but to rent a goat
Barb Saenger is a resident of Castle Pines, Colorado, a community that has had overwhelming success using goats to trim back growth on land that is at a high risk for fires. In 2007, a fire in Saenger’s county came within 20 yards of her home, and another fire nearby a few years later destroyed 500 homes.
So, Saenger decided that the community needed to do something to help reduce risk. They hired people to come in and remove the brush and oak, but it grew back even thicker after five years.
Then, while at a fire-mitigation seminar, Saenger was introduced to the goat option.
For the last two years, the PineRidge Home Owners Association in Castle Pines has hired a team of 300 goats from a Wyoming-based company, Goat Green, to come in and trim back the 20 acres of land that the community shares. Not only has it been extremely successful in reducing the vegetation, but the goats have been tremendously popular among residents, the local fire department, and conservationists.
For $14,000, the PineRidge HOA hosted 300 goats on their land for two weeks last June. Saenger said that people come out in the morning with their coffee to watch the goats, sometimes even naming them. The city also hosted an education day about fire mitigation. Saenger said that around 500 people came by during the course of the day to see the goats, and news outlets covered it widely.
“When people are talking about goats, they’re talking about fire mitigation,” Saenger said. “They don’t know it, but that’s what they’re doing. And it’s creating a fire-adaptive community.”
Goats on the rise, but moving slowly
Supporters of projects like those in Castle Pines include Tom Welle, manager of the National Fire Protection Association wildfire division of the Denver field office. He said that right now only anecdotal evidence really supports the use of goats as fire reduction tool.
“The widespread use of them really hasn’t happened, and I think a lot of that is because it can be a little bit cost prohibitive and time intensive, versus a lot more methods you can get a lot done a lot more quickly,” Welle said.
He added that determining whether or not to use goats is very circumstantial, and really depends on what the land need is. Additionally, goats, like any fire mitigation tool, are only a short-term solution. So, it is up to a community or government agency to determine which strategy would be most beneficial.
For Saenger’s community, there is supposed to be a significant decrease in the re-growth of fire dangerous vegetation after the use of goats for three consecutive years. She said that after just two years, she already sees a difference. To be a fire-wise community or land owner, there must be a commitment to to whatever course of fire mitigation chosen.
So, while Smokey Bear may have been right in saying that we can prevent forest fires, we don’t have to do it alone. We can call on a team of goats to help get the job done.
Leah Merrall is a junior studying journalism and communication, and plans to be a news reporter after college. She was born in Toronto, Canada, and lived the other half of her life in Scottsdale, Ariz., and enjoys reading and traveling.