As wildfires rage in the Sierra Nevada and all across the West with greater frequency and intensity, the loss of property, upended lives and toxic smoke is becoming too much to bear. Naturally, we humans want to take action and fix the problem. But instead of addressing the root cause of the problem – too many livestock overgrazing the range and spreading the flammable weed cheatgrass – the livestock industry is predictably peddling even more livestock grazing as a “solution” to the problem they caused in the first place.
The solution, or so it has been sold to us, is to release sheep, goats and cows across the landscape in greater numbers to mow down invasive flammable cheatgrass with the goal of lessening fire intensity if and when fire visits. Recent stories on intensive sheep and goat grazing efforts have recently made headlines across Nevada, celebrating “fuels reduction” programs and partnerships underway around Carson City, Reno and other communities. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are also experimenting with intensive grazing programs with the stated purpose of reducing cheatgrass and mitigating wildfire in more remote areas far away from the wildlands-urban interface.
Cut through the propaganda propagated by the livestock industry and you will discover that the fuels problem is actually caused by grazing itself. For nearly one hundred and fifty years, under our system of settler colonialism, domestic livestock have been ravaging our native ecosystems while introducing cheatgrass both directly and indirectly into previously resilient deserts, sagebrush steppes, and grasslands.
Livestock destroy biotic soil crusts that act as an impenetrable barrier to cheatgrass and other invasives. Where the ground is distrubed by hooves this creates the perfect opportunity and environment for cheatgrass to take hold. And excessive grazing – the 50-65% forage removal that federal agencies typically authorize – destroys the native perennial bunchgrasses that would otherwise prevent cheatgrass invasion. Where cheatgrass already exists, grazing impacts allow it to spread and entrench itself further. Any short term gains in fuel reductions are offset by the compounding problem of more flammable cheatgrass on the landscape in the long run. Livestock also carry and distribute cheatgrass seeds in their fur and feces. To add more insult to injury, when cheatgrass burns, it spreads itself even further. It is a vicious cycle.
Cheatgrass is palatable to livestock for only a short window in the spring when it is soft and green. This is a very narrow window indeed, and after it dries out domestic grazers will quickly move on to native bunchgrasses and wildflowers. Native species take a long time to reestablish themselves in areas that are heavily infested with cheatgrass. Grazing puts further pressure on these desirable native plants (that have greater moisture content and are much less flammable) by destroying root structures through trampling and overconsumption. Sheep, in particular, are known to absolutely decimate native communities of vegetation in short periods of time. This ravenous reputation is what inspired the name “hoofed locusts”.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. What’s downright crazy is increasing the intensity of that same thing that caused the problem and still expecting things to change. It’s difficult for commercial interests to accept that there are no good solutions to the wildfire crisis through business as usual. However, if we take a step back we might just begin to see the error of our ways more clearly. Let’s start down the right path by giving Mother Nature some breathing room by removing invasive livestock from the arid West, and let the land and native vegetation communities begin to heal. We just might see our wildfire problem begin to improve as a result.