Goat meal? Spokane could deploy goats to tame wildfire fuel

Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer is looking to hire scores of new firefighters.

They’ll each stand 20 inches tall and have four legs capped by cloven hooves.

Schaeffer calls them biological masticators, herbivores or browsers. But most people probably know them as .

Schaeffer and Councilwoman Lori Kinnear are proposing that the city of Spokane pilot a program to bring trips of goats into the city’s overgrown areas to chow down – all with the hope of reducing wildfire risk.

“We thought it would be a pretty good opportunity to use, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but goats to reduce fuel,” Schaeffer said. “I know more now about goats and fuel reduction than I ever could have imagined.”

The proposal, befitting of a city where a trash-inhaling iron goat is cemented in its most iconic park, was reviewed by the city’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee on Jan. 6. After identifying potential funding sources, Kinnear expects to bring forward a formal request to the council in February or March, in time for the upcoming fire season.

Kinnear knows it’s hard to keep a straight face as she describes the plan. But she recalled recent fires, like the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, that have devastated communities.

“We’re a candidate. We have to take it seriously,” Kinnear said. “To get rid of the brush and fuel is cost-prohibitive if we use people, and it’s also dangerous.”

The practice goes by a few names, including “prescribed herbivory,” “targeted grazing” and “targeted browsing.” But the goal, essentially, is to use live animals as an alternative to controlled burns or human labor when thinning out vegetation on city land.

 

Kinnear hopes to compare the goat method to the efficacy of controlled burns and manual labor.

Spokane wouldn’t be the first city to use goats for fire prevention. Anaheim, California, recently renewed its contract with a private company that has its goats graze the city’s hillsides. Liberty Lake has used its own goats to help manage noxious weeds in its parks for years.

But don’t expect Schaeffer or Kinnear to grab a shepherd’s crook and head to a city park anytime soon. Under the pilot, the city would not own or maintain goats. Rather, public officials would select an area and develop a plan before contracting with a private owner. Several companies in Eastern Washington offer such a service, according to Schaeffer.

The city would pilot the goat approach at a single location in each of the three City Council districts. Though the exact locations have not been determined, Schaeffer said priority would be given to city-owned land at high risk of developing a wildfire that could spread to nearby residential neighborhoods.

Schaeffer said there are “challenging” areas around U.S. 195, Five Mile Prairie, Indian Trail and Liberty Park.

“You name it, we’ve got a lot of them,” Schaeffer said.

Kinnear said locations under consideration include High Bridge Park and Beacon Hill. In 2018, a Beacon Hill brush fire prompted the evacuation of more than 100 nearby homes.

Though goats wouldn’t be the right animal for the job during every season and for every type of vegetation, the practice offers a number of benefits, Schaeffer said. Goats are quieter than machines. Their impact on air quality and the risk posed to neighboring properties is less than a controlled burn’s would be. Goats can handle steep slopes that machines and people cannot, and they cause less disturbance to the soil.

The animals are limited to grazing about 7 feet into the air, about as high as they can reach on their hind legs. And shrub or tree stems wider than an inch will be left behind.

“I thoroughly researched it up, down and all around,” Schaeffer said, noting the city’s Park Department is involved in the planning. “I think it would be a really good opportunity for us to try.”

Les and Shalene Camp co-own one of those operations, Leshay Goat Rentals, on a 160-acre ranch in Cheney. With about 90 goats, Leshay has already contracted with private landowners around the Spokane area, including in the Glenrose neighborhood last year.

The Camps’ goats can munch through about half an acre of vegetation in a day. The couple stay around the clock with their goats, who are penned in with a fence that is moved as goats make their way through a property.

Leshay’s owners say the noise of their operation is minimal, goats rarely get loose, and their droppings are nearly odorless – think deer, not horse.

“When we get done with an area, you can’t tell we’ve been there, except for the fact that all foliage is gone,” Shalene Camp said.

Mechanical treatment might be more cost-effective on flat land with few obstacles. But in many cases, the goats are the clear choice, Les Camp argues. Last summer, about 60 Leshay goats cleared roughly 2 acres of land. The final bill was about $2,700, compared with an estimate of $10,000 from a professional landscaper.

Schaeffer’s seven-page proposal prepared for the committee includes some back-of-the-napkin math. A single 100-pound goat can chow its way through about 12 pounds of green brush every day, so it would require about 170 goats to work through a single ton of brush in a day.

A single minder can oversee about 1,500 goats at a time, and about 450 goats can fit into a semitruck.

The most common fee structure would be based on the acreage tackled by the goats in any given project. Schaeffer estimated the city would pay $300 to $1,000 per acre of brush.

Councilwoman Karen Stratton asked if goats make noise and would impact neighboring properties.

Schaeffer said he hadn’t heard of noise complaints, but acknowledged goats have gotten loose.

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