Using Grazing Animals to Reduce the Risk of Wildfires

Posted on Monday, March 27th, 2023 by Brian Shobe
Photo Credit: Cole Bush of Shepherdess Land & Livestock

This is the second in a three-part series to share the details of three bills that CalCAN is sponsoring in the 2023 legislative year. Here, we summarize SB 675 (Limón), a bill to integrate prescribed grazing outreach, infrastructure, best management practices, and planning into existing wildfire prevention grant programs. 

Catastrophic wildfires have taken a tremendous toll on Californians in the past 6 years. These incidents have threatened the lives of millions of people, inundated our lungs with hazardous smoke, and accounted for billion of dollars of damages each year. Farmers and ranchers in our network have lost crops, livestock, and structures,  been evacuated (some multiple times), and had their operations disrupted by smoke, public safety power shutoffs, or loss of insurance.

These high-intensity, uncontrolled wildfires are both exacerbated by and contribute to climate change. In 2020, wildfires became the second highest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the state, second only to the transportation sector. To prevent this vicious cycle from getting worse, the state must invest in the full range of tools available to prevent human-caused wildfire ignitions, reduce wildfire intensity, protect communities, and create more fire-resilient landscapes.

In the past few years, the state has put in place policies and investments to minimize future disasters, with a focus on scaling up prescribed fire, forest thinning, and home hardening.  Encouraging progress is being made and must be continued because the scale of the challenge is enormous and urgent.

One under-resourced strategy for reducing the impact of wildfires is a technique called prescribed grazing, which Senate Bill 675 (Limón) defines as “the lawful application of a specific kind of livestock at a determined season, duration, and intensity to accomplish defined vegetation or conservation goals, including reducing the risk of wildfire by reducing fuel loads, controlling undesirable or invasive plants, and promoting biodiversity and habitat for special status species.”

Prescribed grazing is a versatile and ecologically-based wildfire mitigation strategy with well-documented co-benefits including carbon sequestration, native plant and habitat restoration, and the production of local food and fiber. By converting vegetation into food, fiber, and manure, prescribed grazing also naturally cycles nutrients and removes fine fuels more effectively than the two most common vegetation management alternatives: fossil fuel powered mechanical equipment and chemical herbicide treatments. Finally, prescribed grazing complements prescribed and cultural fire by reducing fuel loads before controlled burns, maintaining fuel loads in between controlled burns, and/or being implemented in areas where prescribed fire is considered too risky (e.g. near communities or critical infrastructure) or not appropriate for the ecosystem (e.g. areas that have burned too frequently). Despite these advantages, prescribed grazing has received little funding within existing state wildfire mitigation grant programs and little recognition in the state’s wildfire resilience planning processes.

Wildcat Canyon Regional Park above the Berkeley Hills. The East Bay Regional Parks District utilizes prescribed grazing by cattle, sheep, and goats to reduce fire fuels and maintain or improve habitat conditions for native plants and wildlife. Learn more here. Photo Credit: Brian Shobe

California’s grasslands, oak woodlands and savanna cover about 25 percent of the state, and these ecosystems have adapted over the millenia to the presence of grazing animals. Many large herbivores such as bison, camels, mammoths, mastodons, and oxen used to roam widely throughout the state and went extinct 10,000 years ago, but elk, deer, and other grassland species remain—in fact, about 90 percent of all rare and endangered species in California inhabit grasslands. Grazing animals play a part in maintaining healthy ecosystems by controlling the ecological balance of vegetative species, reducing fire fuels that result from the accumulation of non-native plant biomass (called thatch) and shrub invasion into grasslands, and improving soil health by trampling plant residue and their own waste into the soil profile. As grazier Marie Hoff so eloquently wrote about on this blog three years ago, cattle, sheep, and goats can play a regenerative wildfire mitigation role that also provides for our food and fiber needs.

Relatively few state wildfire mitigation resources have been invested to incentivize prescribed grazing on public and private lands. In 2020-21, only 4 out of 105 (<4%) Wildfire Prevention grants included grazing, according to the Newsom administration’s FY 22-23 Nature-Based Solutions Budget Change Proposal (BCP). The same BCP stated that “Grazing is an important and proven activity type in the mitigation of hazardous fuel reduction and community wildfire preparedness” and “Grazing is an economically effective alternative to machine and human brush-removal.” However, the administration’s proposal for $10 million specifically for prescribed grazing was not included in the final budget bills negotiated with the legislature last year.

There are some noteworthy efforts underway at the community scale to optimize the use of prescribed grazing as a wildfire response, such as the Ojai Valley Fire Safe Council’s Community Supported Grazing Program in Ventura County, the Sonoma and Gold Ridge Resource Conservation Districts’  Land Smart Grazing Program, and Fibershed’s Community Grazing Cooperatives. At CalCAN,  we see a need to develop policies to support and replicate these local models, identify new funding sources, and remove practical barriers to widespread adoption of this powerful tool.

The map above is an example of the type of project SB 675 aims to support. One of the major goals of the Ojai Valley Fire Safe Council’s Community Supported Grazing Program is the creation and maintenance of a grazed corridor surrounding the Ojai Valley, which is considered a very high fire hazard severity zone. This corridor, and the program overall, is being planned in close collaboration with the Ventura County Fire Protection District.

To begin addressing this gap, we are excited to be sponsoring SB 675 by Senator Monique Limón (D-Santa Barbara). The bill concept and language was developed through a series of conversations and field days with rangeland ecologists, prescribed graziers, fire professionals, and groups like the Community Environmental Council, Fibershed, and Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

SB 675 defines prescribed grazing in statute, better integrates it alongside other vegetation management tools in existing state wildfire mitigation programs and planning processes, and addresses specific barriers identified by land managers and graziers to scaling up the practice. More specifically, the bill does the following: 

  1. CalFire’s Fire Prevention Grants Program
  • Requires CalFire to increase outreach and opportunities for prescribed grazing projects in consultation with the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Range Management Advisory Committee (RMAC), which is made up of rangeland ecologists, Certified Rangeland Managers, and prescribed grazing practitioners.
  • Clarifies that livestock management and community-supported prescribed grazing are eligible public education and outreach activities in the program.
  • Removes a sunset provision on advance payments in the program.
  • Clarifies that fencing and water improvements for prescribed grazing are eligible costs.
  1. Department of Conservation’s Regional Forest & Fire Capacity Program
  • Requires relevant experts (RMAC, Department of Fish and Wildlife, UCCE Livestock & Natural Resources Advisors) to provide guidance and best management practices related to prescribed grazing to DOC and local and regional entities responsible for developing and implementing regional wildfire mitigation plans and programs.
  • Requires the guidance above to address specific barriers to scaling up prescribed grazing (e.g. building community support, grazing infrastructure, planning and monitoring, etc.) in order to support local and regional entities in developing more sustainable, long-term plans for vegetation management.
  1. California Wildfire & Forest Resilience Task Force
  • Requires the Task Force to develop a strategic action plan to expand the use of prescribed grazing near communities.
  • Expands the scope of the Task Force’s sustainable economic development framework and market strategy to include fiber and food products alongside wood products.

You Can Help!

We are grateful to Senator Limón for her leadership in this area, and encourage organizations, farmers, and ranchers to join us in supporting SB 675 by signing on to a letter of support!

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