Check It Out: Targeted Cattle Grazing for Wildfire Fuel Breaks in the Great Basin

By Morgan Lawrence, USDA Northwest Climate Hub

Cattle on an open rangeland site, with mountains in the background
Cattle grazing at sunset on public rangeland in Malheur County, Oregon, with the east side of Steens Mountain visible in the distance. Credit: Greg Shine, BLM.

Wildfires in the Great Basin are bigger and badder than ever. In fact, the 12 largest fires on record in the region have all burned in the last two decades, and more acres of rangeland burn annually than forest in the U.S. Rising temperatures and changes in precipitation caused by climate change have pushed the region into a new era of megafires—fires that burn 100,000 acres or more. Wildfires in the Great Basin often occur in quick-burning fuels, such as grasses and sagebrush, that allow fires to grow rapidly, threatening communities, wildlife, and industry. Fuel breaks (strips or blocks of reduced or removed vegetation) can slow the spread of wildfire and provide a safer space for firefighters to work. Fuel breaks can be implemented with prescribed burns or mechanical treatments like mowing or dozing. However, some of these methods can be expensive, difficult to maintain, and fossil-fuel intensive. To keep pace with megafires, rangeland and fire managers need sustainable management practices that can protect property, wildlife habitat, and resources.

Targeted cattle grazing could be an effective addition to the fire mitigation toolbox in the Great Basin.Targeted grazing uses cattle to graze fuel breaks in areas that are likely to burn. Ranchers and land managers work together to graze cattle in fire-prone areas in the spring when forage is palatable. It provides free forage for cattle and creates a fire mitigation strategy for land managers. In this way, targeted cattle grazing presents a sustainable alternative to other fuel break practices.

Rangeland scientists at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have worked with partners to create successful wildfire fuel breaks using targeted cattle grazing in the Great Basin. These fuel breaks have slowed the spread of several large wildfires. There are some difficulties with targeted grazing, however. Getting cattle to the right area at a time when grass is palatable and at the right stage to be grazed can be a logistical challenge. In addition, ranchers have to consider how to water their livestock while keeping them within the bounds of the intended firebreak. Virtual fencing could be an effective method for keeping cattle in place without overt management, whereas some ranchers have used more traditional practices, like range riding. Check out this article I wrote for the Northwest Climate Hub, where Pat Clark, rangeland scientist for the ARS, discusses the successful use and challenges of targeted cattle grazing to prevent the spread of wildfires in the Great Basin.