Sheep grazing on fire fuel

Ed Smith has been counting sheep in his sleep.

In fact, he has been counting sheep in his waking hours, too. For the past year it has been a part of his job as a cooperative extension specialist for the University of Nevada.

Smith, along with colleague Jay Davison, headed an experiment to see if controlled grazing of sheep can effectively eliminate fuels in Nevada's dry, fire-friendly environment.

The results of the experiment, conducted almost a year ago on C-Hill in Carson City, were reviewed this week with land management supervisors and Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev.

"It was a fun project to work on," Smith said. "But I had this recurring nightmare the sheep would walk off and end up on the front lawn of the Legislature building."

Smith said the experiment proved successful in reducing grasses that accumulate over years, creating extreme flammability during the summer months. While fire has not hit C-Hill this year, Smith said the sheep grazing created an obvious fire break, a space to control and fight fire should disaster strike.

"One of the things we were trying to do is create an effective fuel break," he said. "It isn't always to stop a fire. Sometimes firefighters need a space to fight fire.

"If you looked at the hill, you could see a green strip where the sheep were grazing," he said. "You could see the results. Now it's not just a uniform blanket of grass, which is good fuel for a fire."

Controlled grazing can be a preferable grass-control method to mechanical, prescribed burning and herbicidal remedies. Out of 36 Kings Canyon residents, 33 responded to questionnaires sent out asking about their responses to the project.

Smith said the overwhelming majority didn't mind the sheep, and some even enjoyed the novelty of having them in an increasingly urbanized area. Some respondents said the danger of prescribed fires makes them nervous, as do the environmental effects of herbicides. Tractors and mowers are a loud nuisance in residential areas, the respondents said.

"They said for the most part the sheep were quiet, slow and camouflaged," Smith said. "It's noise and dust free, and smoke from fires can just lay in the valley."

The ewes were brought in by a rancher who volunteered to be a part of the project. The animals were 'trained' to respond to an electric fence, so they did not test the wires that were draped around the grazing areas. This makes set-up and movement easy for a rancher. "With fiberglass poles, he could set up a mile-long corridor in a half-day."

The voltage in the electric fence is controlled by a car battery and solar recharging system.

The only complication in last year's experiment was the loss of a sheep to a pack of wild dogs. The unknown long-term effects of cost and condition of the animals could also be considered in wide-range implementation of controlled grazing.

The project cost $13,000 and 350 sheep were used.

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