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Fighting forest fires with cattle

Targeted grazing keeps the risk down around British Columbia interior communities

Before settlement in the B.C. interior, fires were a normal part of keeping grass from building up in the forest understory.

There’s a new group of firefighters in British Columbia, but not the usual two-legged kind. They’re cattle and they’re just doing what they do naturally — grazing — but under the watchful eye of the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association. It’s leading a project to use a management tool called “targeted grazing” to reduce the intensity of wildfires. 

“A lot of people confuse it with intensive grazing,” says Mike Pritchard, a rancher and the wildfire prevention co- ordinator for the association. “Targeted grazing is targeting a certain plant or grass community to reach a certain goal,” says Pritchard, who has more than 30 years of fire prevention and forest management experience. “In our case, we’re targeting grass or brush that impacts fire behaviour. It doesn’t have to be intensively done; we’re not grazing it to carpet.” 

The targeted grazing project came about after the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons in British Columbia’s interior destroyed many houses and caused severe damage to rangeland, costing the province millions of dollars. B.C. Wildlife Services approached Pritchard because of his experience and offered the cattlemen’s association funding to come up with some strategies to reduce fires. 

Fires were natural 

Their eyes turned to highly flammable grass areas in and near the communities, and how they could manage them with cattle. 

Pritchard says that historically, the area had been all rangeland. 

“Cattle came to the interior of British Columbia because there was lots of grass, and the grass was there because of the fire history in most of the country, with the interior burning once every seven years on the lowlands, which kept the conifer encroachment back and grew grass.” 

The fires in the 1800s and early 1900s didn’t cause much damage because there weren’t many houses. How- ever, as the area became popular for recreation, people moved in, developing subdivisions and resort communities. This created conflict with the ranchers, who eventually moved their cattle away. 

“The cows are still out on those tenured rangelands,” Pritchard says. “They’re just farther away.” 

For the past decade, there has also been significant investment in conifer harvesting and thinning the forest canopy to make the area more appealing for recreation. Because the grass seed bank was still there, as more water and light got in, the grass grew and without the cattle to graze it, it became susceptible to intense and damaging fires. 

Pritchard says fires in the area can never be eliminated. 

“That’s the ecosystem that we’re in... all we can do is manage it and try to keep it lower-intensity, so if we can change the dynamic so it’s not so intense, then crews can go in and fight these fires instead of having to deal with them with air tankers, helicopters and heavy equipment, or extreme burnout operations with the prescribed ignitions.” 

Good neighbours 

That’s where the targeted grazing project comes in. With the goal to reduce fire intensity adjacent to subdivisions, the B.C. Cattlemen’s Association began moving cattle back to the area to remove the grass hazard naturally. 

“They are just a tool, no different than mowing or burning the grass,” Pritchard says. “If the cattle can do it, why not give them a chance? They’re just another tool in the toolbox.” 

The cattlemen’s association is currently working with ranchers in Cranbrook, Peachland, Summerland and Kelowna, grazing several hundred head of cattle. Next year, they expect to have another 100 head in Merritt as well. 

“We’re trying to be a good neighbour and have low impact to everybody there, so we go in and graze it, then we leave and we’re not coming back,” Pritchard says, adding as they learn more about the process, they may have to come back as the grass grows back. “We’re learning as we go. So far, what’s interesting is how easily we can figure out the fire intensity of grass. If it’s not cured — completely dry — it stays in a vegetative state as the cattle continue to graze. So the grass is healthier for longer and less likely to burn.” 

They are also learning how long they will need cattle to graze to have an effect. Early indications are they will only need to be in the communities for three weeks. 

“It is a small time frame that the cattle are there doing their job,” Pritchard says, explaining the hazard for grass and fires in the region is in August. “If we can graze in June through to July, we’re hoping our data will show that if we can keep the grass in a more vegetative state, that may be as good of an intensity reducer... since if grass is green, it doesn’t burn as well. It can be taller and green and we’re still meeting our objective.” 

Fencing is expensive

Currently the cattle are kept in the area and out of the subdivisions with a high-end electric fence product that is very visible to wildlife. The fencing is transported on a giant reel that’s operated off a power winch and holds four kilometres of fencing. 

But it is costly. Pritchard says fencing in the southern interior of British Columbia costs $20,000 per kilometre. To address this, they are looking at virtual-fence technology that would put collars on the cattle that let them know via a mild electric shock when they are too close to the boundary. While the technology is available in Europe, it needs to be adapted for use in Canada. The B.C. Cattlemen’s Association is now going through that process and hopes to have collars by April. 

Other agencies, including fisheries, habitat protection and species at risk are also interested in the technology. Pritchard says they are also looking whether it can be used near the U.S. border, but keeping the cattle on the Canadian side. 

“There is all kinds of potential here, not just saving money and fire suppression.”

This article was originally published in the 2021 Forage & Grassland Guide.

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