All Systems Goat
Why have hundreds of goats been let loose in East Bay parks? They’re playing a critical role in fire-prevention efforts.
The slopes that surround us have two seasons: lush green and golden brown. There are trees, of course, but our eyes are accustomed to the palette of the California calendar, and after a while, we don’t even glance at the hills.
So imagine my surprise one morning when I stepped outside to see the hillside behind our Walnut Creek house filled with motion and new colors—and the bleating of goats.
A herd of goats was scattered across the steep slope, eating the bone-dry grasses. A dog and a shepherd kept watch, but the goats needed little supervision. They had a job to do and were working hard at it.
Such sights are becoming increasingly familiar, as goats have become the lawnmowers of choice for the East Bay Regional Park District, the East Bay Municipal Utility District, cities, schools, and ranchers throughout the area.
So, why do we see more goats now than ever before? It’s simple: Fires need fuel—but so do goats. What feeds a fire will also feed a goat, and because of their willingness to clamber up and down nearly perpendicular hillsides, goats have become a go-to resource for reducing fire risk.
Mike Canaday started shipping goats to fire-prone areas in 2002. Today, his business, Living Systems Land Management, has more than 10,000 goats scattered across the state who gobble up fuel that might otherwise turn a local fire into a regional disaster—such as the 2018 Camp Fire that all but destroyed the city of Paradise, killed 85 people, and charred almost 240 square miles.
A year earlier, the Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties burned 440 square miles, but the flames killed no civilians, thanks partly to Canaday’s goats. A stretch of land there had been grazed to stubble, creating a fuel break that “slowed the fire down enough to get people out safely,” Canaday says. “When you can change people’s lives, that’s very emotional. It makes it worthwhile.”
One of the reasons officials are turning to goats for this type of work, as opposed to other grazing animals, is their agility. “Goats can get into areas that are hard to reach,” says Brad Gallup, assistant fire chief for the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). “They are great for steep areas,” adds Kristen Van Dam, an EBRPD ecologist.
It helps that they eat pretty much everything. “Goats tend to be a scorched-earth option,” Van Dam says, noting that the district also uses sheep in some areas, though they “have a more limited palate.” Cattle are also in the mix. “Livestock managers need a place to graze, and the park district needs fuel management,” Van Dam explains. But cattle and sheep aren’t as nimble nor omnivorous as goats.
Their popularity, however, has led to a goat shortage. They are also more expensive than cattle, Gallup says, “so you put them where you get the most bang for your buck.” For the EBRPD, that includes Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve and Garin and Anthony Chabot regional parks, among other areas.
Goats aren’t as tough as their reputation might suggest, either. “The hardest thing about goats is that you have to keep them full of food all the time,” Canaday says. They also require specialized handlers. Canaday’s company hires shepherds who stay with the herds 24/7 during the spring and summer and travel with them from place to place.
It’s important to keep them healthy, too, because as Canaday points out, “A sick goat is hard to cure.”
The goats that dotted our local hillside, though, looked healthy and happy as they worked their way through several acres of brown grass. They were also efficient: By midafternoon, the dog and the shepherd had started herding them to an access road. Trucks pulled up, and before long the bleating herd was heading off to the next job.
In their wake, the goats had left a landscape clear of combustible matter and created a fuel break that conceivably could protect our entire neighborhood should sparks fly on a hot and windy day.
“Now that people have seen what can happen,” Canaday says, “they realize how catastrophic those fires can be. And when the fire is already coming toward your house, it’s too late.”
Which is why the sight of goats grazing in open space comes as a welcome relief. As they dine out, they keep us all safer from the ever-increasing threat of devastating fires.
Eight Fun Facts That Only a Goatherd Would Know
1. One goat can eat as much as eight pounds of vegetation a day—and miraculously, still stay skinny. Maybe that’s because …
2. Goats have four chambers in their large stomachs—a configuration that aids their digestion and allows them to eat a wide variety of foods.
3. No, goats don’t eat tin cans; in fact, they can be picky eaters. They have sensitive noses and don’t like to consume anything that doesn’t smell right.
4. Goats are emotional and get lonely and sad if separated from their herd.
5. Different herds have different accents. Put a group of African goats together with Californian ones, and you would be able to pick out the different herds by the sound of their bleats.
6. You knew goats were exceptional climbers, but did you know they can even climb trees?
7. They can swim, too.
8. According to an Ethiopian legend, goats helped to discover coffee—and for that, they should be considered one of humanity’s greatest benefactors.