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Hundreds of goats consume Clear Creek wildfire risk

by Cheyanne Neuffer
cneuffer@tahoedailytribune.com
Denton and Shari Cook own High Desert Graziers and the 350 goats.
Cheyanne Neuffer / Tahoe Daily Tribune

More than 300 goats are devouring flashy fuels on 100 acres to prevent wildfires above Highway 50 in northern Douglas County.

Along with hand crews, these goats will help remove tons of flammable vegetation from this extreme wildfire risk area.

“It’s not a matter of if it burns, it is a matter of when it burns,” said Nevada Division of Forestry Resource Management Officer Anna Higgins last week. “To reduce the impact, we need to reduce the fuels.”

According to Higgins, the area near the Clear Creek watershed hasn’t burned in over 100 years.

The project is funded by NV Energy’s Natural Disaster Protection Plan and half by Senate Bill 508 which helps fund fuels mitigation work.

The bill allotted funds to the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for wildfire prevention, restoration and long-term planning.

NV Energy Wildfire Mitigation Specialist Mark Regan said if a fire broke out in this location, it would travel quickly due to the types of fuels.

Regan says that this specified location is particularly important because above the fuels, there are NV Energy power lines.

There is a history of several fires around the area and the communities just below in Carson City would also be threatened if a fire ignited.

The terrain is steep and rugged which would make it difficult for crews to navigate with heavy machinery.

“It is believed this is the first use of goats for wildfire mitigation by an electric utility in Nevada,” Regan said,

The roughly 350 hungry goats came from Denton and Shari Cook of Smith Valley. The duo has worked in the ranching industry their entire lives and now shifted their skills to help with fire mitigation.

The Cooks own High Desert Graziers which is a targeted grazing service that uses goats to reduce weeds and wildfire fuels.

The goats are between 1-3 years old. They are Spanish goats from the Kensing lineage meaning they were specially bred to eat vegetation in all types of terrain.

This type of grazing doesn’t have any known harmful impacts to the goats and Denton Cook says that these goats get benefits from the shrubs they consume.

He says that if given the free range, the goats could cover 4-5 miles in a day, but for the project these goats are confined to a fenced-in 6-acre parcel.

Cook says the goats can eat 5-6 pounds of vegetation a day. The goat’s stomach acids also kill the seeds so there will not be any regrowth from their poop.

The goats consume native grasses and shrubs including sagebrush, bitterbrush, manzanita along with cheatgrass, which is a non-native grass introduced from Asia and is easily flammable.

Cheatgrass can cause fire to move into rangelands and forests adding to the rapid spread of wildfires.

While sheep have been used to reduce fuels around Nevada and California for years, goats will eat just about everything including dry weeds and cheatgrass which the sheep can’t eat.

The goats even eat pine needles. Cook says that they have been trying to expand this fire mitigation treatment to the Tahoe Basin.

Each night after a long day eating, the goats are herded by two border collies into their sleeping pens. They are guarded by their protector dog named “Ziva” who is Kangal, a Turkish dog breed that specializes in protection from predators. The Cooks also use “Fox Lights,” an electrical fence and even put on talk radio to keep other wildlife away from the goats at night.

Regan, Higgins and the Cooks agree that goat grazing is sustainable, ecologically beneficial and cost effective for reducing the risk of wildfire.

Using goats reduces the use and possible risk of ignition from gas powered-mechanical equipment. If the fire danger is high, a fire engine has to be present in case the heavy machinery ignites a spark.

“We don’t need to worry about that with the goats,” said Regan.

Using goats for fuel reduction also costs significantly less than other methods.

For the 100-acre area, it costs about $1,000 a day. The goats will be grazing away for another 60-80 days depending on the weather.

Regan says they hope to expand treatment across Nevada and will continue to work with foresters and land managers.

“Wildland fire is the highest natural disaster risk to Nevada,” he said.