Interview: How Sheep Are Helping Fight Fire

May 19, 2016

Credit U.S. Forest Service, Carson Ranger District

The Eastern Sierras saw a wet winter this year, leaving grasses and other fire fuels on the ground. Now foresters are looking at sheep to help solve this issue.

Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick sat down with Anna Belle Monti, fuels forester for the U.S. Forest Service to learn more.

NG: Can you just tell me a little bit about what a fuels forester does?

AM: I am partially responsible with the help of a fuels manager on my district to manage the fuels reduction projects. Fuels reduction projects range anywhere from logging operations to hand work. There’s a whole variety of tools. And here on the Carson Ranger District, we’re in what they call the wildland-urban interface, so a lot of our projects are targeted around communities.

What kind of fuel reduction projects are you currently working on?

Within Washoe County specifically, we’ve got about eight or nine fuel reduction projects that are in various stages of implementation. They range all over the place. For example, one of our larger projects is at the base of Mount Rose Highway right now. Just last week you might have seen the smoke; we did a prescribed understory burn. That’s part of that project.

And then the Arrowhawk Project also includes one of our sheep grazing project.

Sheep grazing. Can you explain a little bit more about what that project entails?

So we actually have two locations where we utilize sheep to go in and graze what we call the fine fuels. One of those projects is right here at the base of the Mount Rose Highway in the Arrowhawk Project, and they are currently grazing 1,000 acres. We also have a project in Carson City, just on the west side of town, and they’re grazing 500 acres. So the point of this is the sheep go out and they graze on the finer fuels, the grasses and the smaller diameter stuff. We time it just right when the cheatgrass is just starting to green up and they’ll eat it.

How many sheep are a part of this project?

There’s 800 ewes in this project right off of Mount Rose Highway, and then in Carson there’s about 800 more ewes and lambs.

We have a video of the sheep being released. Can you just explain what’s happening here?

So we contract with a gentleman out of Gardnerville. His name is Ted Borda and he owns Borda Land and Sheep Co. He brings his truck and trailer up and he unloads the sheep and they just kind of go for it.

Once they’re grazing they have two or three herders usually as well as the sheepdogs who are there for protection and to help herd them where they need to go and keep them out of areas they’re not supposed to be.

We have a problem of people walking and not keeping their dogs on leashes. The sheep dogs are trained to protect the herd and so there is the potential for some clashing there if you’re walking your dog and it’s not on a leash.

Since we’ve had a wet winter this year, we have less dry areas but that also means there’s more vegetation. How has this season impacted your fire prevention techniques for this year and what do you expect to see this fire season?

It’s hard to predict fire; I’m sure you’ve heard that line from everybody. The other thing too, is that we don’t really have a season anymore. I think that was showcased well with the Caughlin Ranch Fire, as well as Washoe Drive Fire. Wildland fire can happen at any point in the year.

It is wetter in a lot of areas; it’s a lot cooler than it was, say this time last year. But with that there are a lot more grasses, there are a lot more plants growing. With that being said, we’ve actually been able to utilize these cooler and wetter months to do some of our prescribed burning later in the year than we normally would, to help reduce a lot of that.

Would you say that climate change is impacting your work?

I would say it is. I would say it’s impacting everybody; it’s not just fuels. It’s all the other programs I work with, so hydrology and wildlife. But I would like to say that it is something we consider, especially when we’re looking at the sustainability of the projects we’re doing. What are they going to look like in five years? What are they going to look like in ten years? What are they going to look like in 100 years?

In 1995, the Forest Service spent 16 percent of its budget on fighting wildland fires. Just last year, that number jumped to 52 percent. So how has this increased spending on firefighting impacted other areas of fire science, including research?

A lot. You hear the term “fire borrowing” a lot. That money they’re using to fight these large fires is coming out of other people’s programs. It’s had a huge impact, and that’s why hazardous fuels projects has become such a highlight, especially around our wildland-urban interfaces. Because it’s a lot cheaper and a lot easier to manage that than trying to fight one of these catastrophic wildland fires.

Are there any events that people here in the area can attend or is there anything people need to know?

Absolutely. So May is Wildfire Awareness Month. There’s a ton of community events going on all over the state, but especially here in Washoe County. All of that information is also listed on the livingwithfire.info webpage.

To learn more about how to prepare for fire and what you can do to stay safe, visit livingwithfire.info