Climate change has heightened the risk of large and frequent wildfires in the Great Basin, and caused the region to enter a new era of megafires—fires that burn 100,000 acres or more. As a result, rangeland and fire managers will need management practices that can protect property, wildlife habitat, and resources from wildfire. Targeted cattle grazing could provide one such management practice. Rangeland scientist Pat Clark and his team at the Agricultural Research Service have worked with partners to implement targeted cattle grazing to create effective wildfire fuel breaks on public rangelands.
Reading Time | 9 minutes
Management Goals | Use targeted cattle grazing to create wildfire fuel breaks while avoiding grazing-related damage to rangelands.
Audience | Ranchers, Rangeland Managers, Fire Managers
Project Area | Northern Great Basin with nine sites in Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada
Agencies | USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and individual rancher permittees
Cattle grazing can be used to create fuel breaks, which are strips or blocks where vegetation has been minimized or removed to slow the spread of wildfire, making it easier and safer for firefighters to combat wildfires. There are many ways to create fuel breaks, including prescribed burns, chemical treatments, and mechanical treatments (e.g., mowing, dozing). However, some of these methods can be cost-prohibitive or difficult to maintain. Targeted grazing, which uses cattle to eat large strips of flammable vegetation down to a targeted stubble height in the spring, is a sustainable alternative. As such, Pat Clark and his team determined that implementing such targeted cattle grazing fuel breaks in the Great Basin could help prevent the spread of wildfire.
Climate Change Impacts of Concern
The spread of invasive annual grasses is one of the main contributors to increased fire size and frequency in the Great Basin. Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae), two of the most common invasive annual grasses, grow rapidly in spring and die early in summer, covering rangelands in dry vegetation which can easily ignite and spread wildfire. Climate change has increased temperatures and reduced snowpack, expanding the range of these highly flammable grasses. As of 2020, invasive annual grasses dominate one-fifth of Great Basin rangelands, an eight-fold increase from 1990. Areas with invasive annual grasses burn 2–4 times more frequently than areas that are not dominated by annual grasses in the Great Basin. By using cattle to create fuel breaks in these swaths of invasive annual grasses, rangeland managers could help to prevent the growth of more numerous wildfires into megafires.
Site and Permittee Selection
To begin this project, Pat Clark and his team located areas in the Great Basin that might be appropriate for the implementation of targeted cattle grazing for wildfire fuel breaks.