Flocks of sheep help reduce wildfire risk in northern Nevada

On a warm spring morning, Georgia Vasey walks up a trail west of Carson City, Nevada.

“This is the moment when all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Wow, Nevada isn’t just brown and dry,'” says Vasey, the city’s natural resources specialist. “It looks pretty green from afar. But it’s all the greening of all the grasses.

From a distance, you can see that the green hill is painted in a band of white that seems to move. As you get closer, before you can clearly see what covers the hill, you can hear the loud bleating of sheep.

Up close, the sheep appear to be happily munching on the grass. But Vasey says they do a lot more.

“What happens after the fires is you’ll have this puff of fine fuels,” she says. “The sheep are grazing the grass to hopefully reduce those fine fuels.”

The main one is cheater, an invasive species that spreads quickly and is highly flammable. And these sheep do not hesitate to eat it. Vasey says everyone can eat about five pounds of hay a day.

In all, there are 1,400 sheep divided into two herds that will mow cheat grass from sunrise to sunset for a month and a half.

“We’re not going to prevent fires,” Vasey said. “This place will always burn. But what we can see is that the areas that have been grazed and we have a fire again, the intensity of the fire is much, much less and they are much more manageable for firefighters. »

Getting rid of the grasses and brush that fuel wildfires is an essential part of western land management. Usually this is done by prescribed burning. But the use of cattle is becoming more common, especially in California.

In the same way herds of sheepgrazing herds goats and livestock are being moved across California to reduce wildfire threats. In the past two years, the state has experienced six of its seven largest wildfires.

Kaleb Rodel

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Mountain West Press Office

The exclosure on the hill (left) allows officials to see the difference in brush density compared to where the sheep are grazing.

Back in Carson City, Vasey quietly walks towards a herd. “Okay, let’s get a little closer. They might get a little temperamental,” says Vasey.

Hundreds of ewes and lambs of various sizes and shades of white climb the hill. White, fluffy watchdogs and shepherds roam alongside.

This is the 16th consecutive year that Carson City has used sheep to reduce wildfire risk. The program was launched by the 2004 waterfall firewhich burned over 8,000 acres and destroyed 18 homes in the area.

“It was a really scary fire,” says Vasey. “There have obviously been many fires since then. But that one was, I think, the most devastating Carson City fire we’ve ever seen.

Years later, the whole West is in a mega-drought – and just drying up. That’s why Vasey says fuel-grazing sheep are more important than ever.

But the city also monitors what stage the grasses are in and how much is consumed each year. In the pasture, sometimes less is more.

“If we overdo it, if it was overgrazed, and that would allow us, you know, to pump the brakes and say, ‘Hey, this year maybe you’ll have to avoid that area for the plants to have a bit more time to regenerate,” says Vasey.

The program is free to Carson City, which uses sheep from Borda Land and Sheep Company. The century-old ranch is owned by Ted Borda.

“We give him land so he can graze his animals, and then at the end we get this free fuel management,” says Vasey.

She adds that Carson City is especially grateful for the partnership as wildfire seasons are getting longer and more intense due to climate change.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana , KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations throughout the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the public broadcasting company.