Sheep sent into Nevada foothills to eat fire-prone grass ahead of wildfire season: report

It might not be a baaaad idea.

Federal officials are deploying hundreds of sheep to southwest Nevada ahead of the wildfire season to root out and eat a specific type of invasive weed that often serves as kindling for the region’s big blazes, according to 2 News Nevada.

The ravenous flocks — released by the US Department of Agriculture — hopped out of their metal trailers and raced toward the foothills near Thomas Creek, where they munched on a variety of grasses, video taken by the station shows.

Sheep hop out of a trailer and head for the hills — where federal officials want them to eat the grasses that can serve as tinder for wildfires. KTVN – 2 News Nevada
About 800 sheep have been sent into the foothills near Reno, Nevada. KTVN – 2 News Nevada

But there’s one kind of plant that handlers really want them to find: Cheatgrass, an invasive species from Europe that’s caused problems for Nevada since it arrived a century ago.

“It produces a lot of seed, it out-competes native vegetation and … because it dries out sooner, it presents itself as a fuel hazard earlier in the year,” Duncan Leao, program manager for the Forest Service Wildfire Crisis Strategy, told the station.

If the sheep eat it now — while it’s still in bloom — it creates gaps for native species, the station said.

It also slows wildfires by thinning out the ground cover.

“We’ve had numerous instances where there’s been wildfires that have actually intersected or coincided with these areas that we’re grazing, and have actually reduced the intensity,” Leao added.

Wildfires regularly strike the area, state officials said, but the blazes have been particularly bad recently. AP
In 2011, fires ran through several homes in southwest Reno, killing one person, injuring several others and destroying homes. AP
One kind of grass in particular — cheatgrass — often serves as kindling that helps these wildfires explode, according to reports. AP

The station said it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement for the USDA — which has been running the program for about a decade — and the Nevada-based Borda Land and Sheep Company, a century-old sheep ranch that raises “quality lamb and wool,” according to its Facebook page.

The sheep get free food, 2 News said, and Reno knocks its fire risk down a bit.

The ranch also sends flocks down to nearby Carson City, where they do similar work controlling spark-prone vegetation.

The fast-moving brushfires are particularly dangerous when they hit populated areas. AP

In a Facebook post by the US Forest Service — Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, Carson Ranger District Fuels Specialist Steve Howell said the grazing keeps weeds at bay, cuts down on colonization and slows invasion rates.

“Targeted grazing can reduce the risk of wildfire by removing undesirable vegetation and creating fuel breaks to slow the spread of wildfire to make it easier and safer for firefighters to combat wildfires,” Howell said.

The 800 or so sheep hit about 1,500 acres’ worth of land each year, he added.

Hundreds of wildfires break out every year in Nevada, but the blazes have been especially devastating in recent years, according to the Nevada Legislature website.

Two massive fires in 2018 burned nearly 1 million acres of land in the northeast portion of the state, the site said.

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