Goats Really Are the G.O.A.T. in the Fight to Prevent Western Wildfires

Goats eat brush around California's Cuyamaca College in 2020.
Goats reducing brush around California's Cuyamaca College in 2020.Jarrod Valliere/The San Diego Union Tribune/Shutterstock

Goats are surprising creatures. Their benefits to society go far beyond gimmicky yoga classes. Turns out the rectangular-eyed eating machines are playing an indispensable role in battling fires. As the effect of climate change intensifies and the dangers of wildland fires increase, there’s plenty of work for them to do.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been 68 large wildfires (and more than 45,000 wildfire incidents) in 2021 that have burned more than 3 million acres of land. Historically bad drought conditions and record temperatures are drying out vegetation and creating more fuel for fires.

Herder for hire

The New York Times recently ran a profile on Lani Malmberg, a herder who works in fire mitigation. Malmberg and her herd of 200 goats travel across the American West reducing fire danger. To put it more simply, the goats just eat. Grass, leaves, and brush are all on the menu. Malmberg says the goats can stand up to 9 feet tall to eat tall brush, something other grazers like cows can’t do. In addition, the animals help protect the land by defecating on it.

“By increasing soil organic matter by 1 percent, that soil can hold an additional 16,500 gallons of water per acre,” Malmberg explained.

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This usage of goats is not new. In 1980, they were part of a “proof of concept” demonstration in California. There, they were grazing chaparral, or dense thickets of plants and shrubs. This year, goats have already helped create a firebreak around the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. In 2019, they got credit for helping save the library from a fire that burned 1,800 acres.

Twenty years ago, Mike Phillips who worked in fire prevention for Laguna Beach, California, said three things contribute to wildfires: fuel, topography, and weather.

He best summed up the benefits of using goats to prevent fires in an interview with Smithsonian magazine: “We can’t change the topography, and we can’t do anything about the weather. The only variable to reduce is the fuel load. That’s what goats do for us.”

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