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Sheep work to help with fire prevention in Santa Barbara County

Livestock grazing services are becoming more widely used as a fire mitigation tool. Animals clear vegetation and reduce fire risk, especially in hard-to-reach places like the slopes and hillsides of the Central Coast.

Jack Anderson is co-owner of Cuyama Lamb LLC. They have about 450 sheep that graze the foothills of Santa Barbara County. His organization is hired to clear low-growing plants such as grasses, shrubs, and mustard.

“We will build a temporary electric fence in a place where we’re contracted to remove vegetation, then we’ll bring in a group of animals and they will graze it down,” he said.

Anderson said they continually move the fences so the animals graze through the acreage and clear about 70 percent of the vegetation leaving the area more protected from fire.

“And then we’ll build another little section and open it up and they’ll walk into that one. On a daily move, the herd will migrate across the job site,” Anderson said.

Anthony Graham works for Cuyama Lamb and coordinates jobs at multiple sites. He said with the help of a few loyal, hardworking dogs, he herds the sheep from place to place on land, or loads them into a trailer for longer distances.

“Depending on the size of the group that we’re shipping, it can take all day,” Graham said.

Cuyama Lamb began as a business for restoration of native California grasslands and ethical farming. The sheep grazed orchards, vineyards and ranches. In 2018, Anderson said they expanded their services to include fuel reduction.

“That was the year after the Thomas Fire, and so there were a lot of conversations in this area about how we were going to manage the fire fuel loads in this region,” Anderson said.

Those fuel loads, or the amount of combustible material, contributed to the Thomas Fire becoming the largest wildfire at that time in modern California history. That fire and the subsequent mudslides in the Montecito burn area drew international attention.

Cuyama Lamb Co-owner Jenya Schneider said grazing for fire mitigation purposes needs to happen routinely to keep fuel loads down.

“It takes regular impacts, whether every year or every few years, and that will also manage for reducing the amount of dead material that builds up over time,” Schneider said.

Another benefit, she said, is the trampling of the area by the animals’ hooves.

“Just moving around the landscape, they’ll walk through all these dense shrubs and trample that dead material,” said Schneider. “And once it comes in contact with the soil, there’s often enough soil biology that it will actually decompose back into the soil.”

According to Schneider, the use of livestock for fuel reduction is growing on the Central Coast.

“Locally, we’re seeing our Community Wildfire Protection Plan discussing how to use grazing as a tool, and we’re in conversation with many of the local fire departments,” she said.

The Montecito Fire Department hires the sheep for areas that are difficult to reach with hand crews or trucks. 

“There’s some really steep portions of the district that we have always wanted to treat but weren’t able to necessarily get in there,” said Maeve Juarez, a wildland fire specialist with the Montecito Fire Department.

Juarez said Montecito includes livestock grazing in their Community Wildfire Prevention Plan. She said most fire departments in the area recognize it as a valuable tool.

“It’s an attractive option, as it’s shown to be an ecologically and economically sustainable management tool,” Juarez said. “The sheep and goats actually prefer the steep and rocky terrain and the slopes that we see along the Central Coast.”

Whether to use cattle, sheep, or goats for grazing depends on the vegetation and environmental impact desired. For instance, the Pismo Preserve is currently using cattle and goats for invasive weed control and fire mitigation.

The Central Coast has a variety of livestock grazing services to choose from in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Monterey counties. You can also contact your local fire department.

This report is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism.
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