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Grazing goats take a bite out of fire risk

In Christian Valley, herd consumes brush and grass so flames can’t
By: Gloria Young,
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They’re hardy, they’re hungry and they’re ready to work.

PG&E is harnessing the energy of hundreds of goats to clear fire fuels from land bordering Dry Creek and Christian Valley roads in Auburn.

On Tuesday, dozens of the animals had cleared much of the vegetation down to bare ground on a strip of hillside just off Christian Valley.

“You couldn’t even see the creek this morning,” said Jack Harvey, PG&E Resource Management Department staffer who is overseeing the project.

The pilot program started Aug. 12 and will run until mid- to late September to clear 100 acres of PG&E’s 900 acres at the site. There were 694 goats -- five bucks and 689 females -- on the job, with another 300 being delivered Tuesday afternoon, Harvey said.

The intent is to lessen the fire risk for PG&E land and facilities and ease the task for firefighters, should a blaze occur.

“We have multiple power transmission and distribution lines and also a water conveyance system – the Wise Canal and a penstock pipeline on the project,” he said. “We’re protecting the property, our facilities and ultimately the community.”

For maximum efficiency, crews put up temporary fencing to create 5- to 10-acre paddocks for the goats to graze.

The animals are scarfing down blackberry bushes, manzanita, coyote brush and all sorts of grasses.

“The goats eat poison oak, which we love, so we don’t have to go crawling through it,” he said.

They also make quick work of invasive species like Scotch broom and starthistle.

“The deer won’t eat the starthistle, but the goats love it,” Harvey said.

They even pull down branches to eat the leaves, so they effectively prune up to about 7 feet. Without the goats, the only way to clear the land would be a mechanical treatment.

“That’s not an option because it presents too great a fire danger this time of year,” he said.

Flying Mule Farm owner Dan Macon is handling the contract for the goats.

“We’re working in partnership with Star Creek Ranch, a goat and sheep operation in the Central Valley,” he said. “(The goats) are Boer and Spanish meat crosses. They are meat goats and they are particularly good browsers … with a widely varied diet.”

Macon, an Auburn resident, has been contracting goats for land clearance for about 10 years.

“We do fuel reduction and ecology restoration, where we manage invasive plant species,” he said. “We’ve done weed control – all sorts of things.”

After the land is cleared, the fuels will grow back next year. “But if you clear it (at least) three years in a row, it taxes out the nutrients and it will remain clear (for an extended period),” Harvey said.

At Cal Fire, spokesman Daniel Berlant said the use of goats for vegetation management is a common way for homeowners and property owners to remove overgrown brush on their property.

“What we want to see is property cleared of overgrown grass and brush,” he said. “Whatever the property owner goes in with -- a weed eater or mechanical equipment to clear it out, or the use of animals -- however they do it, we just want to see property cleared so it reduces the fire threat.”

The goats are getting a lot of positive response from passers-by on Christian Valley Road.

“We’ve had no complaints and many thanks,” Harvey said.

Reach Gloria Young at gloriay@goldcountrymedia.com.