The goats came early this year. But with warming temperatures, so did the spring vegetation — a creeping carpet of flammable flora draped across The Bay Area’s parklands, backyards and open spaces, ready to spark.
Thanks to these bearded bovids with names like Dipper, Thor and Burrows, San Francisco’s burgeoning fire risk is being digested by a herd of 100 goats spread across nearly 70 sites. Known as nature’s lawnmowers, these goats have been hard at work clearing overgrown areas across the Bay Area, chomping on poison oak, thistle and Himalayan blackberry.
Overseeing the herd on a grassy hillside in the Presidio was Genevieve Church, executive director of City Grazing, a nonprofit based in the Bayview.
“We’re the last working herd of animals in San Francisco,” she said, citing The City’s long history of urban herds, a tradition that stretches back nearly a century.
Although the use of livestock to clear vegetation is not new, a growing movement of Bay Area public agencies, universities and landowners are seeking out grazing companies like Church’s to manage landscapes, restore grasslands and mitigate wildfire risks as drought conditions continue to plague the state.
“Once people see it, they can’t unsee it,” said Andrée Soares, a third-generation California rancher and owner of the grazing company Star Creek Land Stewards, referencing the sometimes dramatic impacts of goats and sheep on landscapes. “It just makes so much sense with regard to the impact and how beneficial it is to the landscape, to the climate.”
Unlike wildfire and forest conservation measures of decades past which left vast acres of forests and grasslands untouched, the goats represent a shift in the thinking about fire and land management as a long-term strategy.
Grazing is a nearly carbon-neutral weed control technique that is nontoxic, nonpolluting and cost-effective, studies show. Goats can be picky eaters, as evidenced by their apparent avoidance of the foxtails that had sprouted into feathery fronds before Church and her goats arrived at the Presidio site. But in general, their competitive nature and lightning-fast metabolisms make them excellent consumers of woody shrubs, invasive species and various other plants that pose a fire risk.
Church, who grew up on a ranch in the foothills of Yosemite, has always been intimately aware of the wildfire threat in California. Her family has long defended its vast acres using grazing, but she didn’t think the fires would follow her to San Francisco.
“When I moved to San Francisco as a 20-year-old, I was like, I’ll never have to worry about smoke inhalation from wildfires again,” she said. Now, “I’m 10 blocks out of the ocean. I have two air purifiers in my apartment.”
Over the past decade, Church has seen San Francisco’s once-verdant hillsides transform into tinderboxes waiting to ignite. Before “you might worry about encampments, you might worry about rodents, you worry about undesirable wildlife populations, but you weren’t worried about fire,” she said. “Now, we’re worried about fire.”
Grazing already has saved countless acres from recent wildfires in the North Bay, noted Soares, who works closely with local fire departments to clear what’s called defensible space — the buffer zone between a building or house and vegetation that surrounds it — and create safer staging hubs for firefighters.
“In one of the areas that we had grazed, they were able to stage all of their equipment in that area knowing it was safe because nothing would burn around it,” said Soares. “The fire stopped when it got to the grazed area.”
Once a seasonal activity, grazing takes place nearly year-round from the hillsides of Marin County to Muni yards in downtown San Francisco. “Now I have people saying, ‘How quickly can you get here? I want this done in March’ because fire season really starts earlier and earlier every year,” said Church.
Transit agencies, including BART and Caltrain, also have used goats to clear brush and cut firebreaks around stations and other infrastructure. This reduces the agencies’ reliance on fossil-fuel-powered equipment and increases safety for workers, BART said.
“Mowers can spark fires on this kind of brush that we see in a drought,” said Josh Soltero, an irrigation/grounds worker in BART’s grounds maintenance department. “The goats can get into places we can’t. They save a lot of shoulders and backs.”
Additionally, sheep and goats can improve soil health and water retention and aid in the carbon sequestration cycle by gnawing invasive annual plants, breaking up the soil with their hooves and leaving nutrient-rich poop behind.
“That native vegetation is really what we want to leave on the landscape,” said Soares. “The animals are a tool that helps at particular times to improve the impact of vegetation on the soil. They help the plants do what needs to be done — the plants are taking the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Photosynthesis is making it happen. Then we’re shoving that carbon back down into the soil.”
Left unsupervised, however, goats can have a detrimental effect on the environment. Known as “the razor of the globe” for their insatiable appetites, goats have garnered a bad rap for leaving forests sparse and barren. It’s a balance that Church and other grazers work hard to maintain by moving herds frequently.
Soaring temperatures can also slow down goats and make them less likely to eat, a challenge when clearing areas in the hot summer months most prone to wildfires.
But when managed properly, these herds can save lives and restore ecosystems. This month, thousands of Soares’ goats are scheduled to be released into the hillsides of Marin County, where retired San Francisco Fire Department Assistant Deputy Chief Rich Shortall oversees the region as the executive coordinator of the nonprofit Fire Safe Marin.
Since introducing the herds to the area, Shortall said, he’s seen the invasive brushes and broom shrubs give way to native oak trees and grasses. “The landscape has transformed out here,” he said. “It’s getting back to what it should look like.”
For Soares, whose family has been managing goats and sheep for over a century, her herds represent a returning of the land back to what it used to be — and a path forward for communities confronting climate change.
“It’s absolutely critical to the landscape. It’s what we’ve done and have been doing for centuries in California,” said Soares. “Before the sheep (and goats) were here, the herds were here. The herds of elk, the herds of deer, the herds of buffalo that really helped promote a beautiful landscape that everybody found when they came to California.”