Close to 300 wild fires are blazing in British Columbia, forcing 100s of residents out of their homes and destroying property, crops and beautiful wilderness regions. It is not the first time hot, dry weather has caused this type of disaster. New measures to prevent or reduce fires are constantly being researched and tried.
One of these is the use of livestock grazing to keep grass on public lands short near vulnerable communities. In a pilot project by the British Columbia Cattlemen’s Association (BCCA), a targeted grazing initiative will determine if livestock can help mitigate British Columbia wildfire risks by grazing near four communities within the province.
When combined with other fire mitigation methods like prescribed burning and selective tree harvesting, targeted grazing is an effective tool used to lower the intensity of fires by reducing natural biofuels. Livestock consume these biofuels in specific locations for certain lengths of time to help manage fine fuels that can turn sparks into raging infernos. Not to be confused with intensive grazing, targeted grazing focuses on a plant or grass community to reach an objective.
An Agricultural Idea is Born
British Columbia wildfires are notorious in western Canada for causing massive damage and smoking out other provinces. In 2020, over 600 fires burned more than 15,000 hectares of land. One hundred and forty-one air tanker missions were carried out, contributing to an overall cost of $213.8 million for wildfire suppression.
After the devasting wildfire seasons of 2017 and 2018 that left homes and rangeland charred, British Columbia Wildlife Services sought solutions elsewhere—in the agriculture industry. They left the challenge up to the BCCA to come up with some strategies to reduce wildfires.
The pilot project, overseen by Mike Pritchard, the Wildfire Prevention Coordinator for the BCCA, is currently focusing on Crown land that borders the communities of Cranbrook, Peachland, Summerland, and Kelowna, using several hundred head of cattle to target surrounding grass and brush that impacts fire behaviour. Previously, urban pressures led ranchers to move their grazing areas away from growing subdivisions. This project sees the return of cattle in closer proximity to cities for three-to-four-week periods in the spring to keep grass down for the summer fire season and hopefully minimize fire damage and intensity adjacent to subdivisions.
Plans for future projects are being built on the initial project’s success. While no formal reports will be released until the end of the program, the preliminary data shows the BCCA has accomplished exactly what they needed to do. “We learned something from this summer because of the fires. The Peachland location had a fire, and the cattle slowed it down so firefighters could get at it. They got there within 12 hours,” declared Pritchard.
Now in its second summer of three, the targeted grazing project is sponsored by the Ministry of Forests in British Columbia, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Kootenay Livestock Association, and the Columbia Basin Trust. The bulk of the $500,000 project funding is used on infrastructure including electric fencing to keep the livestock properly contained, self-closing gates, and watering systems. Some is also allocated to public education.
Many Brains Make a Smarter Agricultural Project
While it was Mike Pritchard who got the pilot project rolling, ranchers have been integral in its execution; the original idea for the project came from ranchers who experienced the relationship between grazing and fire mitigation first-hand. They have known for a long time what has been grazed and what hasn’t, the day-to-day management of the livestock rests solely on their shoulders, and their knowledge goes beyond making a successful project.
“Most of the ranchers with these Crown land leases live in the nearby area, so the project is a benefit to their homeplaces and communities. They feel like they’re doing a service to local residents, and there’s a satisfaction and pride in that. They see the value in this and that fire-smarting these communities is a win all around,” notes Pritchard.
Also present is First Nations interest, but at this moment there is no active participation. Their historical knowledge of these Crown land areas will be a crucial piece to adding prescribed burns to further reduce fire intensity, recalling how these leases have reacted to controlled burning in the past.
Now over halfway through the project, ranchers, BCCA, and researchers have realized approaches can be tweaked to get the best results. One approach is to the grazing itself. At the beginning, 50 per cent of the grass on Crown land was left after grazing for other wildlife populations like deer and elk. Now, the cattle are grazing 70 per cent of grasses, putting it below the fire threshold. A wildfire needs to be less than four feet high for firefighters to go in on the ground, and grass is a determining factor in that. Higher grazed areas help firefighters suppress blazes.
Also being fine-tuned is the number of livestock used in the four Crown land locations. “We have longstanding numbers for how many cattle they put on there, and they always go on the conservative side, but we have specific objectives so we’re playing with those numbers,” said Pritchard. “The Peachland project had a wet year, so it didn’t look like the cattle had affected growth. What ranchers needed was more cattle. This year we doubled it to 50 cow-calf pairs for two weeks. After the initial data came back, we found we could add in even more; we could put 100 pairs in there.”
While electric fencing is the primary method for containing the livestock, the idea of using collars was proposed. With collars, ranchers would create a virtual fence for the cattle. As a cow gets close to the perimeter, they would hear a low signal, which would get louder as they got closer to the boundary. At the very edge they would get an electric shock, less than what they would get touching an electric fence. The project is trialing the first prototype on a single cow this summer, and while it looks promising, it is still a year or two before broad implementation would be feasible. Ensuring the collars are affordable and reliable is a must.
Public Education and Engagement Go Hand in Hand
Because COVID-19 hindered in-person events, public consultation on the project was formatted differently, leading to a mooing surprise for some community groups. More than 800 residents signed a petition created by a Southeast Kelowna community group to prevent the project from grazing on Crown land trails extensively used by hikers, horseback riders, runners, bikers, and dog-walkers. Concerns about land access, environmental impacts, and cattle escapees were voiced.
Though the pilot project continued as planned in that area, Pritchard didn’t turn a blind eye to worried residents. “We met with the concerned community group on-site to answer questions,” said Pritchard. “Once they knew why and how long the livestock would be there, we saw lots of support. They were concerned there would be no land access while cattle were there, but that wasn’t the case. Community members were still able to use the area but may have had to go through gates and put dogs on leash. We tried to do everything we could to ensure the community could still use the area.” To ensure community access was still obtainable, self-closing gates were installed, which make trails easy to access for users while keeping the livestock contained.
The BCCA is now seeing unanticipated benefits from the pilot project for residents who use the Crown land areas for recreational purposes. Before the project, the Crown lands didn’t have much water. Now that waterers have been installed for the livestock, residents are using them to keep their dogs cool on exceptionally hot days.
Pritchard also noted that public education about the project and its objectives is ongoing. “While not our primary goal, urban living people having more connection and agriculture in their day-to-day life is a benefit of the program.”
Livestock Make Cents
Alternatives to livestock and targeted grazing aren’t cheap. To reduce the fire risk, mowers can be brought in, but labour and gas are costly. On the other hand, targeted grazing is cost effective, low-carbon, and better for the environment. If successful, targeting grazing will also eliminate the need for airtanker assistance, allowing firefighters to fight the brunt of fires. With the project taking place very near to peoples’ backyards, cattle are also much less intrusive than methods like prescribed burning.
Pritchard is starting to look at the project long term, thinking how the next generation can get involved. Specifically, he’s examining how others would get into the program, what support is available to them, and how they could take the initial steps to replicate something elsewhere.
“Beyond the pilot stage, we’re now asking how to move the program into implementation.” said Pritchard. During the summer of 2022, an implementation project will be started in Vernon, which will be a community program between the Municipality of Lumby and local First Nations.
Communities in fire prone areas may now have a sustainable, cost-effective, and proven fire mitigation strategy to add to their arsenal. As a project that could be potentially rolled out in other provinces, targeted grazing has much to offer towns and agriculture alike.
Farmwork to Feed Canada (F2FC) is a national volunteer not-for-profit initiative by Canadian communication professionals, students, and recent graduates in communications. F2FC collaborates with farmers, and agri-businesses amid COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges to Canada’s food supply and food security, to engage Canadians, pro bono, with compelling stories about their food system and build support for Canada’s farmers, food producers, and their essential skilled workers.