Why goats are here: Ungulates and sustainable fire management

Photo of goat
Fir0002/Creative Commons

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For a few weeks in April and May, you might have seen the two or three dozen goats grazing behind UC Berkeley’s Clark Kerr Campus, alongside the rugby field in Strawberry Canyon or up in the Fire Trails, with a big sign reading “Why Are These Goats Here?”

More than a cute photo-op on your morning hike, these goats serve an integral role in carbon sequestration and sustainable land management in the Bay Area and emphasize the need for agroecological, regenerative approaches to fire risk reduction and agriculture as a whole.

In charge of dispatching nearly 100 goats all over the Bay Area, City Grazing started in 2012 with the goal of engaging communities in environmental education and planetary health. City Grazing prioritizes providing their services to communities that lack access to sustainable fire reduction resources. Prior to the pandemic, City Grazing attended local community events and festivals across the Bay Area to form connections with urban residents and children who have little access to natural spaces. 

Animal grazing and other agricultural strategies central to today’s regenerative agriculture movement have their roots in Indigenous land management and farming practices. Using ungulates — animals like cows, buffalo and elk — to graze in fire hazard zones, like the Berkeley and Oakland hills, helps to reduce crown fires. In addition, ungulates aid in lowering vertical and horizontal continuity in surface fuels, which act as ladders as fires climb up low-lying shrubs to taller vegetation. A decrease in fuel ladders can make the difference between a low-severity wildland fire and a high-severity fire which can completely decimate a forest.

Goats also provide indisputable ecosystem benefits through maintaining urban landscapes, promoting soil fertility, decreasing the use of toxic herbicides and gas-powered machinery and controlling both weed overgrowth and invasive plants like ivy, thistles and blackberries. Goats can also work high up on steep slopes, where fire fuel reduction is the most necessary, and, importantly, help mitigate drivers of climate change and global warming. 

Carbon sequestration is defined as a long-term storage of carbon through natural processes by trees or plants to slow the accumulation of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. Grazing animals maximize natural processes of sequestering carbon through cultivating roots of perennial grasses deep in the soil and eliminating invasive plant species. Studies conducted by the Marin Carbon Project contend that adding compost after grazing further aids carbon sequestering and is a key element to carbon farming — methods used to maximize the removal of greenhouse gases in agriculture like enhancing photosynthesis and reducing erosion. 

These sustainable fire reduction approaches are especially timely and important: In California alone, an estimated 2,568,948 acres burned in 2021. Catastrophic wildland fires in California are only increasing in frequency and severity due to climate change and severe periods of drought. The Berkeley and Oakland hills in particular, with their dense vegetation, steep slopes and strong ocean winds, create the perfect storm for these catastrophic high-severity fires. 

In conjunction with their fire-prone topography, regional parks across the East Bay have experienced a pattern of mass tree death in recent years due to the stress of increased drought. Sustainable fire risk reduction efforts are as important as ever to squelch potential deadly fires such as the Oakland Firestorm of 1991, which took the lives of 25 residents and decimated over 1,300 homes. Farming and landscaping organizations like City Grazing and the Marin Carbon Project are extremely necessary in the fight against climate change and promotion of regenerative, sustainable agricultural practices. 

 For students interested in learning more about sustainable land management and fire risk reduction: UC Berkeley offers a few courses on fire! For a semester-long course on the history of wildland fires and management, take FIRE: Past, Present and Future Interactions with the People and Ecosystems of California (Anthro c12AC or ESPM C22AC). For a more brief introduction, Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology (Anthropology 3AC), taught by Daniel Fisher this past semester, has a unit on nature and ecology, which includes readings about Indigenous fire management history and the importance of adopting these techniques to combat the increasing catastrophic wildland fires in Australia and California. 

Maybe goats can be the G.O.A.T answer for this wildfire season.


Contact Lauren Jones at [email protected].