Sheep may be used as first line of defense against wildfire | NevadaAppeal.com
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Sheep may be used as first line of defense against wildfire

Terri Harber
Appeal Staff Writer
Cathleen Allison/Nevada Appeal file photo 350 sheep grazed the slopes of C-Hill in an effort to create a 200-foot wide firebreak in this file photo from May 1999. The University of Nevada Cooperative Extension project was an experiment to evaluate the use of sheep grazing for clearing cheat grass to help protect residential areas from wildland fires.
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Officials are looking at a woolly solution to the wildfire threat posed by cheatgrass in the hills west of Carson City.

A consulting firm will consider the benefits of controlled sheep grazing.

“We want to create an area where the spread of fire isn’t as fast,” said Erick Walker, natural resource officer for the U.S. Forest Service. “Something that wouldn’t be as hazardous a situation for firefighters to be in.”

Area rancher Ted Borda will provide the sheep and handle the grazing. How many sheep he’ll use and the manner in which they will be herded are among only a small number of details still to be worked out. He won’t be paid for his participation in the project.

The study, to be conducted by Resource Concepts Inc., will compare grazed and ungrazed areas. The width of the grazing strip also still needs to be determined. It could vary between just a few hundred feet to more than 1,000 or even 1,500 feet.

Carson City expects to pay Resource Concepts $20,000 to oversee the fuels reduction work and produce a report. No contract has been written yet, according to Juan Guzman, the city’s open space manager.

Officials are asking homeowners in the area for permission to let sheep graze through a strip of land that could extend three miles, from C Hill to Lakeview Estates. Controlling dogs in the area will be important, said Edwin Smith, an area specialist on natural resources for UNR cooperative education, who is based in Gardnerville.

Smith was involved in a local grazing effort in May 1999, playfully dubbed “Only Ewes Can Prevent Forest Fires.” He isn’t actively involved in this latest graze.

The cheatgrass is a tasty treat for sheep when it is juicy and tender, and the goal is to herd sheep through at just the optimal time. Cheatgrass is fast-growing, dense and has a short life span, but is a highly efficient fire fuel, Smith said.

When the 1999 project was going on, a neighborhood survey indicated that grazing was a highly favored method of fire fuel reduction – more so than the use of mowing, herbicides or controlled burns, Smith said.

“The idea was to get the sheep to eat what we wanted them to eat,” Smith said of the earlier project, which garnered global attention.

The area was scorched during the Waterfall fire, but the cheatgrass came back after the reseeding with native plants.

The grass reached record levels of growth in 2005, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Ideally, the sheep 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 timeframe of only two to three weeks, and some involved hope to begin around April 1.

Among those involved in the study 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.

— Contact reporter Terri Harber at tharber @nevadaappeal.com or 882-2111, ext. 215.