BART employs grazing goats to create firebreaks on right-of-way property

Photo of goats
Jan Canaday/Courtesy
BART is using grazing goats to create firebreaks in its right-of-way property. This will remove dry vegetation and act as an alternative to prescribed burns or herbicides.

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For Bill Stewart, a forestry and cooperative extension specialist at UC Berkeley, finding massive herds of goats chomping on dry vegetation in Berkeley has been a regular occurrence for the last 40 years.

According to Stewart, it is not unusual to see 200 grazing goats near the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve or Tilden Park. In fact, it is likely to become an increasingly common sight as BART uses goats to create firebreaks on its right-of-way property, according to a BART press release.

“It’s a very creative way of taking what essentially is historically a very rural way of using land,” Stewart said. “It is turning out to be one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce fuel risks in and around urban areas.”

Prescribed burning has often been seen as a preferred method of controlling fire damage, similar to practices centuries ago from Indigenous communities, according to Robert York, an extension specialist and adjunct professor of forestry at UC Berkeley.

York said dry vegetation is a significant factor in fueling wildfires. Fire severity can be limited by reducing “surface fuel,” York added.

“It won’t necessarily stop fires from spreading, but it will change their behavior and make them less damaging and easier to manage,” York said in an email.

Lynn Huntsinger, a UC Berkeley professor of rangeland ecology and management, also included prescribed burning and herbicides among alternate options to grazing goats.

However, she agreed with Stewart’s assessment that grazing will be the best solution for limiting fire damage in urban areas, citing the difficulty to control prescribed burns and the erosion caused by herbicides.

According to the BART press release, the goats for the BART project will be supplied by Living Systems Land Management, owned by Mike and Jan Canaday.

While not a “typical customer,” Mike Canaday said BART has been wholly supportive of this project, reflecting the Bay Area’s urge to find a green solution to fire damage.

“It’s a huge thing when you can change people’s lives like that for the better,” Mike Canaday said. “Maybe the fact that for some reason they can’t rebuild or they didn’t have enough insurance … if you could stop that, that’s a huge thing and very emotional.”

The goats will be employed in Fremont, San Francisco, Redwood City and Hayward, Mike Canaday added.

Having spent 10 years working on forestry projects in India, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, Stewart said he looks forward to seeing “urbanites” interact with grazing animals.

“You see this a lot in rural areas, but now you’re really seeing urban people saying, ‘Oh, wow, what are these?’ ” Stewart said. “It brings back that animal connection to the landscape that most people in urban areas don’t really think about.”

Contact Kavya Gupta at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @kavyaguptta.