USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) researchers are conducting a study evaluating the use of targeted cattle grazing to create fuel breaks in order to contain wildfires. The results are in, and so far, cattle have provided extremely positive impacts.
The research is taking place in the Great Basin, where cattle grazing has successfully helped contain three rangeland fires in four years. The latest wildfire to be contained was the Welch Fire near Elko, NV, on July 18.
Targeted grazing uses cattle in the early spring to eat strips of highly flammable cheatgrass down to 2- or 3-inch stubble, which reduces the fuel load that can quickly turn small rangeland fires into megafires.
“These fuel breaks are intended to slow a fire’s rate of spread, make it less intense and provide time and space for firefighters to arrive and more safely attack and contain the fire,” explained ARS rangeland scientist Pat Clark with the Northwest Watershed Research Center in Boise, ID, who directs the project. “That’s just what appears to have happened for the Welch Fire.”
The Welch Fire had flames several feet tall before reaching the targeted fuel break. After burning into the fuel break, flames reduced in height and burning slowed, which allowed time for resources to arrive and fight the fire. If the flames had not slowed in height and speed, the wildfire could have burned upwards of thousands of acres within the southern Tuscarora range, according to the report.
The study is evaluating the use of grazing at nine sites throughout Idaho, Oregon and Nevada. The research is tracking how much fuel is reduced by targeted grazing in the spring when cheatgrass is most palatable to cattle; whether the fuel reductions can be maintained through the start of the wildfire season; and what effects targeted grazing might have on environmental health. — Anna Miller, WLJ managing editor