Steamboat Springs Cows can be the first line of defense in fighting wildland fires this season. No, do not expect our local cattle to don a yellow Nomex shirt, green brush pants and wildland boots. Do not anticipate seeing bovines eagerly trying to carry a Pulaski tool, a backpack water pump and their fire shelter belted around their waist. However, if we try to work together with the forestry management groups and the local ranchers, we might be able to get some mitigation of reducing flashy fuel loads (grass) growing below our tree lines and reduce the ladder fuels (shrub, brush) carry that fire to the tops of trees and devastate the forest.
Last year was an outstanding year for moisture and minimal wildland fires. It gave yet one more year for the needles to fall off the beetle-kill trees, which will reduce the heat intensity of a fire in most areas. The intensity of the fires is what is different about wildland fires since the past. Fire was always a part of our western heritage. Ignited by lightning and even “prescribed burns” by Native Americans, our western land has seen generations of surface fires that have reduced the dense fuels that are under the tree canopies that were only stopped by a right mix of rain, weather and topography. The natural burning of the lands started to make expected firebreaks and created a variety of landscapes and a habitat for wildlife and livestock to thrive on.
We still have controlled burns in spring and fall and lightning strikes throughout the summer, however, the landscape has changed. Now, we have urban sprawl, subdivisions surrounding public lands and communities nestled in and around tree lines. These communities bring paved highways, power lines, fences and bike trails to the mix. Colorado communities are beginning to identify the areas that have fuel buildup that is surrounding homes, and that creates the urban-interface model.
Now, with the suppression of fires in the forest since they are too close to homes and communities, our forests are not as healthy as in the past. The forests now are filled to capacity: too much vegetation, downed trees, and new seedlings and standing trees. What the frequent natural fires once cleaned out to make open healthy tree stands without disease and insects now are riddled with overcrowding of trees, creating a prescription for higher-intensity fires when Mother Nature strikes. The pine-beetle-killed trees are in various stages of danger: highly intense heated fuel loads with dead and downed trees that will make it nearly impossible to mitigate.
“The 2000 fire season was one of the worst in 50 years, with nearly 123,000 fires burning 8.4 million acres. More than $2 billion in federal dollars and countless dollars from state and local funds were spent to suppress these wildland fires. The average acreage burned nationally has remained high with 2006 surpassing the devastation of 2000, and fire risk continues to mount. Much of this increased fire risk has resulted from community growth in the wildland-urban interface, build-up of forest and woodland fuel loads from years of fire suppression, and fire-prone ecosystems created by the invasion of exotic plants like cheat grass.” (Western Governors Association, USDA-FS, USDI-BLM, and others. 2002. “A Collaborative Approach for Reducing Wildland Fire Risks to Communities and the Environment: 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy, Implementation Plan.”)
Since the cheat grass is now on the floor of our forest, it is a perfect time to implement target grazing to reduce these fuels. Target grazing typically tackles four fire fuel types: grass (flashy fuels), shrub, slash and timber.
“Grazing by cattle has been applied to forestlands around the world to reduce fire risk.” (Gold, M.A. and J.W. Hanover. “Agro forestry systems for the temperate zone.” Agro forestry Systems)
The livestock becomes active participants in forestry systems designed to reduce the overcrowding of plants and trees and reduce the likelihood of wildfire. Grazing also can trim ladder fuels and copies the fire pruning effect created by the frequent surface fires that historically burned naturally below the forest canopy. Livestock grazing can clearly adjust the fuel characteristics of forests, though grazing alone does not reduce fire risk. Target grazing allows for the local livestock producers to work with the forest managers to identify the fuel characteristics and develop a strategy to reduce the fuel load and optimize the feed potential.
The strategy would need to include more prescribed burns to fully complement the natural fires of the past that kept the forests healthy. It would take monitoring and flexible procedures to form a successful plan. In order to reduce the fuel loading, integrating grazing and prescribed burns would be the most successful blueprint for our county.
Putting together a line of attack for using grazing livestock as a fire line attack is a complex process. It takes a great deal of cooperation between the forest managers, livestock owners and the public. Using livestock to manage the forest is an ongoing and dynamic process that will take time and persistence to be successful. It will take a great deal of education and training to understand plant and fire characteristics, grazing management and a focus on the goal to reduce fuel loading from all parties. This type of cooperation of all the valued participants could be a cost-effective business model that is a win-win for all involved. For the most part, these relationships already have been forged, and tabletop discussions would be the first step in the right direction for our community. We now have all the tools in the toolbox; now, let’s get to work and hammer out a plan for the future health of our forests.
Brita Horn is a member of the Routt County CattleWomen.