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Hungry herds of goats are front-line workers in wildfire prevention around the country

Unlike picky cows or horses, goats will eat a variety of vegetation down to the ground, creating an open space to help stop a fire

Hungry herds of goats are front-line workers in wildfire prevention around the country
Cover Image Source: City of West Sacramento, California

For a while, it seemed as though the 10-acre wildfire that was racing toward a condominium complex in West Sacramento, California, on May 20 would devour the buildings like it had everything else in its path. However, all of a sudden, the flames slowed and fizzled out in what some might consider an act of divine intervention. In reality, the credit belongs to 400 hungry goats that had eaten the hard-to-reach underbrush surrounding the neighborhood, creating a firebreak—an open space that helped to stop the blaze. "Goats are really hard workers—they'll eat anything down to four inches," Paul Hosley, a spokesman for the city of West Sacramento, told The Washington Post.


Hired by the city to clear weeds and tall grass at potentially flammable locations, the goats had weeks earlier munched their way through about two acres a day. "It almost looks like a moonscape after they go through," Hosley revealed. "They're good for the environment and everyone around here loves them." West Sacramento has been using goat herds as a fire prevention measure since 2014, following in the path of other places around the world that use the environmentally friendly approach to weeding. Now, more homeowners and municipalities are opting for the same with another hot season of wildfires forecast this summer for the West and Southwest.


"They can get into places where mowers can't go, they eat all day without complaining and the fertilizer is free of charge," said Hosley, adding that West Sacramento paid $150,000 to hire a goat herd from Western Grazers this season. The floppy-eared weed eaters made two runs around the city in March and May to eat underbrush. "They're amazing—they'll eat anything," Hosley said. "Prickly foxtails, poisonous weeds, tall grass, even the leaves of trees. They'll stand on their hind legs to reach them."


While over a dozen states—including Nevada, Oregon and New Mexico—regularly use goats for fire management, they've now also become a popular method around the country to remove invasive plant species. The Riverside Park Conservancy in New York relies on goats to control unwanted plants such as English ivy and mugwort. Meanwhile, John Herrold—interim president and chief executive of Riverside Park Conservancy—revealed that a farm in Rhinebeck will be bringing in a small herd of goats for the third year to dine on an endless green buffet all summer long.


"We're thrilled to have the goats' help again," said Herrold. "Everyone benefits from their presence. The goats get to enjoy the park's weeds, the park's natural environment is improved, and New Yorkers get to see goats in their local park." Mary Bowen, who has rented out her herd of 75 Browsing Green Goats to municipalities, the National Park Service and private homeowners in Maryland since 2010, said: "People are looking for more natural alternatives, so they're turning to goats. They don't uproot anything or disturb the soil." Bowen, who puts up a temporary electric fence at each site to keep the goats focused on the weeds and leaves they were hired to eat, revealed that her goats are particularly effective at clearing tall weeds and brush that pose a fire risk.


After a long day of work, the animals lie down for a long rest while chewing their cud and digesting the greens they've consumed through a process known as rumination. "They're sweet-natured and they're hard workers," Bowen said. "I'm blessed to live my life with them." Meanwhile, in Colorado, Lani Malmberg and her son Donny Benz have traveled to 17 states to create firebreaks, remove brush and noxious plants and aerate the soil with their herd of about 1,200 goats. "They're intelligent beings, making decisions about where they put their feet. They're not going to step on a bird's nest. And they require very little water compared to everything else—including a group of firemen," explained Malmberg.


"Horses and cattle will eat nothing but grass if given a choice, but goats will eat noxious leaves and thistles," she added. "They have an appetite for the kind of vegetation that makes up the fire ladder." Malmberg, who two years ago helped start the nonprofit Goatapelli Foundation to teach people how to work with goats in their own communities, anticipates that this year will be a busy season for her hungry herd. "Because of climate change, the fires have become much worse every year," she said. "This is our nest that we're all living in, and the goats are living energy as they browse on the mountainside. There is no machine out there that can do what a goat can do."

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