Sheep assume fire-prevention duties

On Friday afternoon, the 1,500 sheep on the Carson City hillsides were hard at work doing what they do best - chomping on grass.

But their mission is greater than just grazing. The animals are reducing fire fuels, said John McLain of Resource Concepts Inc., an engineering, surveying, resources and environmental services firm in Carson.

Sheep tenders and herding dogs have their work cut out for them, however, as they need to keep the sheep eating, but not eating too much in one place.

Removal of too much vegetation, for example, could result in soil erosion, McLain said.

Rancher Ted Borda called the grazing plan a win-win situation.

"It's good for us, good for the community," he said.

Borda has taken a week's vacation from his day job at Galena High School to get the work started. He and his two sisters, all teachers, also run the third-generation family business, Borda Land & Sheep.

"We wanted to do this because the community has treated us very well," Borda said.

The family is also welcoming area teachers to bring students to see the sheep.

Because the area is becoming more urbanized, sheep grazing is something many children here won't be able to see often, he said.

People moving through the west-side hills, especially C Hill and Kings Canyon, are asked to not bring unleashed dogs through the grazing areas because the dogs protecting the sheep are trained to attack all canines - coyotes and cocker spaniels are the same.

Property owners in the area already have been asked to control their dogs.

Though sheep grazing won't stop a fire outright, it will reduce the amount of dry grass that would help feed a fire and make it hotter and more dangerous, McLain said.

The sheep also are easier to control in the steep, mountainous hills on the west side of the city than grass removal equipment or even cattle. And sheep are a cheaper method of fire fuel reduction, he said.

"It's applying good science to accomplish a need," he said. "The sheep can do a marvelous job if well-guided by someone like Ted."

Ideally, the animals will move through the area and feed on the cheatgrass before the native and less flammable vegetation becomes as mature and as equally tempting. This is a time frame of no more than a few weeks.

Cheatgrass reached record levels of growth in 2005, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. This year's cool, wet weather hasn't been as hospitable to the cheatgrass, but as fast as weather conditions change, so could the amount of vegetation, McLain said.

The sheep will move through the area for the next two to four weeks, depending on the weather.

Among those involved in the effort are Borda, Carson City, Nevada Division of Forestry and Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service, and the University of Nevada, Reno, Cooperative Extension.

Bringing all these groups together requires a "balancing of needs," said Juan Guzman, the city's Open Space manager. While some agencies want to see enough grass left to feed the deer, the city wants the hillsides to be safe, for example.

The city will pay Resource Concepts up to $20,000 to monitor the effort and to provide a report about what they did. It also paid Borda to transport the sheep from Topaz.

• Contact reporter Terri Harber at tharber or 882-2111, ext. 215.


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