The goats’ hard work has paid off so much that the city’s fire service credited the herds with helping stop the flames during a fire in 2022, saving a housing complex. “Our fire chief said if the goats had not made a previous pass in that field, the fire could have been a lot worse,” Puopolo continues. “Because the goats had recently nibbled down the brush in the area to four inches (10cm) high, fire crews were able to get a jump on the flames and save the condos.”
Goats are also useful when it comes to controlling invasive species, such as non-native black mustard plants. When the seed comes out the other end of the goat, it’s nonviable, meaning it doesn’t grow again – unlike when other animals digest seeds.
Using goats to clear land is a centuries-old practice in European countries such as Italy, Greece, and Spain. A study into how effective goat grazing in the Mediterranean is in preventing fires found it is “probably the most ecologically sound technique for creating discontinuities in fuels, mainly at the shrubby layer, and disrupting fuel ladders.” Although the practice hasn’t been around for quite so long in California, experiments to enrol the ungulates in fire management have been taking place for more than a decade.
In 2013, the US Forest Service (USFS) experimented using 1,400 goats in a 100-acre (40-hectare) forest-thinning project in Cleveland National Forest, Southern California. The aim was to clear a 300ft (91.4m) buffer between nearby communities and the forest. “To clear a fuel break normally means lots of human power and machinery, including chainsaws, hand tools and safely burning piles of brush,” said Joan Friedlander, district ranger for the area. The goats, which USFS says cost between $400-500 (£326-408) per acre, compared to around $1,200-1,500 (£980-1,224) per acre when using manpower, attracted a large amount of community support. The forest’s managers established a plan to monitor pre and post-treatment plots so the effective of the goats could be evaluated over time and compared to traditional methods used in the area.
A study on the forest’s use of goats found the animals had a “significant impact” reducing plant cover – 87% reduction in cover, and a 92% reduction in height. Goats don’t have to be the only way to manage the landscape, but using wildlife in this way “should be part of the toolbox when we’re fighting against wildfires”, adds Launchbaugh.