Livestock to help with fire suppression

Initiative would see cattle graze areas with a lot of fine particles and grasses, which pose a high risk for wildfires

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. — The British Columbia government is providing $500,000 to the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association to develop an initiative that uses grazing livestock as a part of a larger fire suppression plan.

The money comes from the ministry of forests, lands, natural resource operations and rural development but cross section co-operation from ranchers, First Nations, government and other user groups is expected.

The money will be used for projects on the ground for fire mitigation and prevention.

“We are still developing the strategy,” said Kevin Boon, general manager of the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association during the organization’s annual meeting held in Williams Lake May 23-25.

The approach is to use targeted grazing where cattle eat fine fuels and grasses that burn rapidly during wildfire events. If that fuel is gone, a natural fire break is created.

In the fires of 2017 and 2018, areas that had been heavily grazed and farmsteads with cleared landscapes escaped relatively unscathed because there was nothing to burn.

“During the fires, we realized the value of cattle and agriculture. It is a low cost, high benefit tool,” he said.

The grazing will be managed with horses and movable fences in high risk areas.

“We have got to change our focus in the cattle industry. Yes, we are producers of really good quality food but we have got an economic value for the environment,” said Boon.

A meeting will be held June 4 to start discussions and planning. Some projects may start this year.

Walt Klenner of forestry ministry said new approaches to managing fires in the forests and grasslands are needed.

“We are in a situation where we need to do something different,” he told the cattlemen’s meeting.

The government has launched an interior forest revitalization initiative and agriculture must be part of it.

Currently, prescribed burns are often used to get rid of dry grass, pine needles and other trash on the forest floor but he questions the efficiency of these activities. Burns are costly and labour intensive. Pine grass regrows and by late summer it is tall and dry, making it a prime fuel for the next fire.

He favours targeted grazing.

“Targeted grazing is using managed grazing to achieve a certain, specific vegetative condition. It is not about dumping three cattle liners instead of one and hoping to God they do the right thing out there,” he said.

“We have tools in your industry that can do the right thing in the right place,” he said.

The cattle must be controlled with skilled grazers to keep them in the areas that need to be grazed rather than wandering into riparian or urban areas.

These grazed areas need to be at least 150 metres wide and in some regions could extend several kilometers. It is also requires a long-term vision where it is done for 25 years rather than one season.

New approaches will take integrated land base planning, changes in tree planting policy, fence rebuilding and perhaps zoning changes in some regions.

Buffer zones are needed around urban areas to create effective fire breaks.

“The urban interface is the last place I would want to graze my cattle but it is the first place where things need to happen,” he said.

The plan could open up more forage for producers and build better bridges with urban neighbours who want cattle off the landscape.

“It can bring livestock closer with social objective. This is an opportunity to use your livestock to achieve certain conditions broader society is looking for,” he said.

While targeted grazing is not a solution to all wildfire management challenges, it is a powerful tool when used in combination with other methods, such as prescribed burning and selective tree harvesting.

Wildfire prevention programs in southern Europe and parts of the United States are successfully using livestock to graze areas to create breaks (areas with little fuel for wildfires) around communities to reduce fire risk.

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