As the occurrence and magnitude of wildfires has grown, so too has the human and economic toll. Mitigation tools have become especially important to protect lives and homes in high-risk areas like Kelowna and Cranbrook. After witnessing first-hand how grazing can temper fire behaviour, municipalities, researchers and ranchers came together to collaborate on a series of pilot projects in BC.
“I brought the local fire chief up here and he couldn’t believe it,” said Manders. “He saw the effectiveness of what we can do when cattle graze the pastures.”
On crown land (owned by the federal or provincial government in Canada) and areas surrounding communities, tree stands are thinned to reduce the risk of large wildfire events. However, with fewer trees, more sunlight and water reach the forest floor, increasing the abundance of grasses and shrubs. Known as fine fuels, dry grasses and shrubs are a volatile and easily ignited cause of fires. Annual growth of grasses and shrubs without any removal increases the fine fuel load and thus the potential wildfire intensity over time.
“Dried grass is a volatile fuel type and can have a dramatic effect on wildfire spread and severity. Grazing is a safe, economical way to potentially reduce the intensity of wildfires by decreasing the fuel load,” explained Shawna LaRade, professional agrologist and Range Officer with the Government of BC.
Using cattle for targeted grazing
After the extreme wildfire years of 2017 and 2018, the BC Government approached the provincial cattle association to organise pilot projects, researching the effectiveness of grazing cattle in forested areas surrounding at‑risk communities. Creating solutions to manage wildfire risk in these interfaces are especially important to preserve lives, homes and infrastructure where other methods, like prescribed burns, are not feasible. Although fine fuel reduction is the primary objective of the project, other objectives include maintaining important values, such as wildlife habitat, biodiversity and ecological integrity.
We have a tool that can remove this fire danger while producing food to feed the community and add benefit to society.
That is precisely where local ranchers saw the natural fit – grass feeds fire, but it also feeds cattle. Under the right conditions, fine fuels can contribute to what is known as a rolling crown fire – an out-of-control event that is impossible to manage. By removing a certain percentage of shrubs and grasses, grazing can successfully divert, slow and even stop fires. When fires do happen, the goal is to lower their intensity so that resources can be effectively deployed. By removing a proportion of grass during the growing season, the risk is reduced.
“We’re not saying targeted grazing is going to prevent a forest fire,” said Kevin Boon, General Manager of the British Columbia Cattle Association. “What we’re saying is that it will reduce the risk of a fire starting, and if one does start, it will give us the opportunity to manage the fire and bring it under control.”
Interested in learning more?
Watch a short documentary on three communities in British Columbia using cattle in their fire management strategies.
With targeted grazing, cattle move into wildland areas adjacent to at-risk communities for two to three weeks in the spring or summer when grass is growing. This type of intense, short-term grazing mimics the natural disturbance of traditional grazers with which the land evolved. The grazed area results in optimum levels of grass and shrubbery to provide the maximum benefit for both communities and infrastructure.
For the farmers and ranchers involved, keeping cattle in wildland areas requires extra management, but also provides the chance to demonstrate the contribution they can make to their communities, above and beyond local food production. Several other areas in BC are exploring incorporating targeted grazing to their suite of wildfire mitigation tools.
Jordy Thibeault, a local rancher from just outside Cranbrook, is happy to participate in the pilot project for the community. Each spring for a few weeks, he brings his herd of cattle to graze the crown land bordering the town. The cows reduce the amount of fuel available, but they also improve the health of the remaining grass. “They utilise the grass for a shorter period of time and then the land is left to rest” Thibeault said. “The grass stays greener in a vegetative state longer, meaning it’s less likely to burn.”
To Thibeault, it is a win-win situation. “We definitely have a role in protecting the community. If you came in here with a machine, like a lawnmower, all it would be is a cost-output. We have a tool that can remove this fire danger while producing food to feed the community and add benefit to society.”
About the author
Amie Peck manages the Public and Stakeholder Engagement programme, a division of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, which works to build public trust in the way beef cattle is raised in Canada. Although born and raised in the city, Amie found her passion for the beef industry while working on a ranch west of Calgary.