Sheep help protect city from wildfires

The side of C Hill seemed to be falling as hundreds of sheep rushed down it toward a water trough Thursday morning.

Jason Foster, a Nevada Division of Forestry firefighter, filled the trough using a fire hose as sheep shoved and climbed over each other to get to the water.

This is Foster's fourth year tending to sheep Carson City uses to graze flammable cheatgrass near urban areas on the city's west side.

He said working with sheep is pretty simple.

"They eat and drink, and that's about it," he said.

But the two bands of about 1,500 sheep each that arrived this week are a great way to help keep the city safe, said Ann Bollinger, city open space coordinator.

Chemicals are potentially harmful and machines can't make it up the steep slopes, she said.

The sheep have worked so well the last three years that they're covering 4,000 acres over the next six to seven weeks, more than ever before, she said.

"This is such a valuable project for Carson City," Bollinger said.

The city started to look at more ways for defense against wildfires after the 2004 Waterfall fire burned about 9,000 acres on the city's west side. Wildfires burned about 17,000 acres in the city between 1980 and 2004, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

Shepherds and dogs have to guard the sheep closely to keep them safe, said Ted Borda, whose Borda Land and Sheep Company supplies the sheep.

Sheep have no way of defending themselves, he said, and a bobcat, bear, domestic dog and coyotes killed sheep last year.

"If a predator attacks, what they'll do is just get in a big circle," he said. "The guy that gets to the middle of the circle first is the guy that is safe. The last guy to the circle is in trouble."

Bears and mountain lions stay away from the sheep once they see humans, however, he said.

Shepherds carry staffs and noisemakers made of cans and direct dogs that guard and herd the sheep.

Borda said the dogs have an instinct for herding, but learn best when paired with an experienced dog. He said the dogs often bring lambs back into the group that get left behind during a rush to food or water.

"They save a guy a lot of walks up and down the mountain," he said.

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