Note: This is the second blog in a 4-part series on solutions to address the impacts of wildfire on agricultural communities. The first blog covered controlled burns.
Grasslands span over 10% of California’s land area. Oak woodlands and coastal scrub, in which grasses make up a key part of the understory, span another 8% of California’s land area. Grasslands provide many ecosystem services, including habitat, water infiltration, and carbon sequestration.
California’s grasslands co-evolved with both fire and vast herds of grazing animals, some now extinct. As such, fire and grazing are necessary for many of these ecosystems to thrive. While people tend to imagine “forest fires” when they hear about wildfires, a large portion of the state’s wildfires actually occur in grasslands, oak woodlands, and coastal scrublands.
Grasses are considered “fine” fuels. They are easy to ignite and burn fast but at a low intensity. Rob Hazard, a 30-year firefighter and current Fire Marshal for Santa Barbara County, said in a presentation this November that most wildfire ignitions start in grasses, then spread to shrubs (aka “ladder” fuels), which then carry the fire from surface vegetation into taller vegetation and tree canopies. For example, the Thomas Fire in Ventura County in 2017 started in grasses, transitioned into chaparral within hours, and then burned for weeks. That’s why many fuel reduction efforts focus on grasses.
Targeted grazing, also sometimes referred to as prescribed grazing, managed grazing, or prescribed herbivory, is the “application of a specific kind of livestock at a determined season, duration, and intensity to accomplish defined vegetation or landscape goals” (Launchbaugh & Walker, 2006). This is different from conventional grazing in that the primary goal is landscape or vegetation management, not livestock weight gain and reproduction. Targeted grazing is often most cost-effective on landscapes that are too large, steep, rocky, or remote for mechanical or chemical management or in the wildland urban interface (WUI) where prescribed fire is considered too risky. Targeted grazing is also useful as a tool to maintain fuel loads and prevent fuel build up after controlled burns have taken place. Check out this 4-page primer on the topic by UCCE Livestock and Natural Resources Advisor Dan Macon.
Grazing reduces flame length and fire intensity, and can therefore shift grasses from a highly flammable and effective fire spreader into a natural fire barrier. This shift has both ecological and safety benefits. For example, researchers at the UC Hopland Research and Extension Center have observed that sheep grazing in the Center’s oak woodlands prior to the Mendocino Complex Fire in 2018 reduced the fire intensity, which resulted in less tree damage (trunk scorching and canopy loss), higher tree survival rates, and less seed mortality.
Maintaining flame lengths below four feet in grasslands also allows firefighters to manage fires without the use of heavy equipment. Preliminary fire behavior modeling done in a recent study by a team of UCCE advisors and specialists found that maintaining fine fuels at or below 1200-1300 pounds/acre in the spring and summer will keep flame lengths below four feet with winds up to 40 miles per hour. Of course, the authors point out the goal should not be to graze grasses down to bare soil. Instead, they write:
“Rangeland managers need to balance different management goals… In some areas, it is important to leave more than 1200-1300 pounds of forage per acre to achieve these goals... However, there are opportunities to improve fire safety in California by grazing rangelands that are not currently being grazed or even by increasing grazing intensity on very lightly grazed areas… Strategic implementation of cattle grazing, including potentially fee-for-service agreements, on key private and public lands can meet multiple natural resource objectives, while also lowering fire hazard through reducing fine fuels, reducing fuel continuity, and slowing or stopping shrub encroachment into grasslands.”
“Grazing for fuel load reduction provides food and fiber, and locally-produced food and fiber at that, nourishing and sustaining the material needs of our communities. With its production of goods and services, grazing supports the state’s economy and provides local jobs, from shepherds to haulers to feed store businesses and butchers, etc.”
Prescribed grazing has gained recognition as a fire mitigation strategy in state policy in recent years. In 2015, the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection’s Range Management Advisory Committee released a white paper outlining the benefits, limitations, best management practices, and CEQA considerations for prescribed grazing projects. Prescribed grazing was subsequently explicitly included in the Vegetation Treatment Program (CalVTP) Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which streamlines CEQA for certain vegetation treatment projects. The Fire Prevention Grants program, which funds community-level fuel reduction projects, has also funded a number of projects that include prescribed grazing in recent years. Still, there are a number of challenges to expanding targeted grazing to the scale needed.
Challenges to Scaling Up Prescribed Grazing
- Unintended consequences of AB 1066 (ag worker overtime rules): Sheep and goat herders have a unique job in that they often spend long periods of time, often a week or more, at a job site, during which time they must be available to respond to any issues that come up with their herds but are not “actively” working much of the time. As such, Congress has historically exempted herders from overtime wage requirements. The Department of Labor under the Obama administration set the estimated hours worked per week for herders at 48 hours in a 2015 rulemaking process. AB 1066 (Gonzalez), the agricultural worker overtime bill, had the unintended consequence of removing that exemption for herders. As a result, targeted grazing operations with fewer than 25 employees are facing the prospect of having to pay their herder employees over 33% higher wages in 2022. Multiple experts I interviewed said such a wage increase will make contract targeted grazing operations financially untenable, and indicated that correcting the issue by re-aligning the state’s overtime regulations with the 2015 Department of Labor rules is the top policy priority for ensuring the viability of targeted grazing. For more information, see the California Wool Growers Association’s webpage on this issue.
- Securing sufficient grazing contracts on both public and private lands: After labor, the highest costs of most targeted grazing come from moving the livestock and setting up the mobile electric fencing and water for each site. As such, contract grazers often have to set minimum thresholds for the size of contract they will take and/or require there to be multiple continuous or nearby contracts in a row. Grazers and experts suggested this challenge could be alleviated by: 1) further supporting matching efforts like the Match.Graze system recently launched by UCCE; 2) supporting communities and local governments in regional planning to develop long-term systems for wildfire risk reduction through prescribed fire and grazing; and 3) supporting local and state government entities with CEQA permitting to enable them to offer more consistent and robust contracts for grazing on public lands.
- Limited training for landowners (public and private) and contract grazers: To scale up prescribed grazing, we need more land owners to offer contracts and more contract grazers to bid on them. Land owners – both public and private – often need on-site technical assistance to help them determine the type of vegetation challenges and fire risk they face, as well as the type of vegetation management that would work best to help them achieve multiple objectives. Ranchers and grazers often benefit from training on ecological, prescribed grazing practices and how to successfully manage a contract grazing operation, which is substantively different than managing a conventional grazing operation. While some UCCE specialists and NGOs currently offer some of these services and trainings (e.g., see the Central Coast Rangeland Coalition and the California Rangeland Conservation Coalition), the need is much greater than they can fill.
Potential Policy Solutions
This fall, we interviewed fire and prescribed grazing experts and practitioners. Based on those interviews, the following policy recommendations would expand prescribed grazing for fire safety and other ecological benefits:
- Align state overtime regulations (pursuant to AB 1066) with federal labor rules adopted in 2015 under the Obama administration for sheep and goat herders
- Streamline CEQA permitting process for local governments and other non-federal public lands managers (e.g., state parks) to establish targeted grazing contracts
- Fund trainings for grazers on ecological, prescribed grazing practices and contract grazing business management
- Fund long-term regional planning and coordination of prescribed fire and grazing between tribes, Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs), local governments, fire safe councils, RCDs, UCCE, and state agencies
Up Next: Stay tuned for the third blog in our 4-part series on Improving Access to Farms and Ranches During Fire Events.