Roslyn, WA—After one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory in the Pacific Northwest this summer—with the unforgettable smoke-pocalypse that socked in the region with thick smoke for weeks—a new tool is being added fight against wildfires: goats.
“More and more, people are looking at goats as a tool for fire suppression,” said Craig Madsen of Healing Hooves, a company based in Edwall, Washington, that maintains a herd of about 250 goats that are used for natural vegetation management.
The goats bleated loudly and walked towards Madsen as we approached the plot of land where the herd was busy grazing.
“The goats are complaining because of the rain,” Madsen said, as a cool, fall shower began.
Madsen stood under the overhang of the trailer he uses to to transport the herd, across the road from the land where the goats were grazing. The guard dog, Gigi, sat under a tree keeping watch as the goats—bucks, does, and kids—worked together to devour everything within reach.
Every car that drove by stopped to look at the unusual sight, and many asked Madsen about what he was doing out there with all those goats.
Healing Hooves was hired by Suncadia, a sprawling resort in a wooded area near Cle Elum, WA, for fire management. By munching on everything they can, the goats reduce the amount of fuel available to wildfires.
“Goats mimic a cool, late-season understory burn,” Madsen said. “They eat all the leaves from shrubs and seedlings, reducing the amount of regeneration so it’s not so dense in the future.”
A thick understory—or vegetation that grows between the forest canopy and forest floor—adds fuel to fires like the Jolly Mountain fire that occurred adjacent to Suncadia over the summer. It was one of dozens of wildfires that torched the Pacific Northwest this season.
The Jolly Mountain fire began with lightning strikes on Aug. 11. By the end of September, the fire had burned some 30,000 acres and caused evacuations in Cle Elum and surrounding areas.
Firefighters were eventually able to contain the blaze before it overtook small towns in the forest outside Cle Elum. Hand-made signs thanking the firefighters filled the streets in the small towns of Roslyn and Ronald—which were also threatened by the wildfire.
At Suncadia, Madsen’s goats worked in acre-sized plots to reduce the risk of future fires on the property.
Some stood up on two hind legs, eating leaves off of bushes and trees up to six feet high. Others worked on stripping bark from seedlings, while some chewed their cud or bedded down for a break.
The goats work day and night, resting as needed. Healing Hooves operates for about five months of the year, starting in the spring and ending around October. In the winter, the goats stay at the ranch in Edwall. Madsen breeds the does every year, which usually results in about 160 kids—many of which he sells.
The goats work in plots surrounded by a portable electronic fence powered by a solar panel. The fence is as much to keep the goats in as it is to keep any predators out. Working in wooded areas brings the risk of attack by bears, wolves, and even cougars, Madsen said, adding that he’s lost goats in the past to such attacks.
The goats had just started on the new plot at Suncadia, and it stood in stark contrast to the plot the goats had finished the day before. That plot looked like someone had gone in with a lawn mower—all the brush was gone. And every shrub and sapling had been stripped of every leaf.
“This is long-term fire suppression,” Madsen said. It’s not a one-time job either, he added. “You need to get the goats in there multiple times so that the understory doesn’t have a chance to recover.”
In some areas, machines would be quicker and cheaper, Madsen said. But goats are useful in areas machines can’t go—places that are steeper, or have soft ground, he said.
“Goats are a tool, you have to figure out how to use it best,” Madsen said.
Around Seattle, goats are used mainly for controlling thick and unruly blackberry bushes or other invasive plants and weeds, said Tammy Dunakin, owner of Rent-A-Ruminant—another company that uses goats for natural vegetation management in Washington state.
“But I have gotten more and more inquiries from eastern Washington for fire prevention jobs,” Dunakin said.
Madsen seconded that, saying he’s had to turn down jobs because there is so much work for goats in the state. Because of the overwhelming interest, Dunakin has even opened up her business to franchising.
She started her business 14 years ago. After working in the trauma end of healthcare, she was burned out and looking for a new opportunity.
“I was living on Vashon Island (near Seattle) and I had some goats and I said outloud, ‘you guys look bored, you need a job,’” Dunakin said, explaining that it sparked the idea that she could start a goat vegetation management business.
At the time, around 2003, there weren’t many similar businesses in the region—although the idea had taken off in California with much larger-sized herds of thousands of goats being used for fire-wising, Dunakin said.
She realized the same thing could take off in Washington state.
“Goats for fire remediation are absolutely a no brainer,” Dunakin said, adding that they not only eat the vegetation but in some cases sterilize the seeds in the digestive process—ensuring the plants will come up less and less.
Also, the goats eat the vegetation so it doesn’t have to be hauled off or just left there, remaining a fire hazard.
“That’s kind of what I call the superpower of goats, they can eat an enormous amount of biomass—it’s amazing how much they consume,” Dunakin said.
Many of the jobs Dunakin gets on the wetter, west side of Washington are invasive species management, like removing Himalayan Blackberry bushes. Another common job is using the goats for crime prevention. She will bring in her goats to clear brush in an area where there was drug use or problematic homeless encampments, and they’ll get rid of any places to hide out.
Since she started Rent-A-Ruminant, Dunakin said she’s increasingly being called about jobs related to fire prevention too.
“I’m busier than I could ever hope to be,” Dunakin said, adding that reporters from Newsweek, ABC, and even the Colbert Show began giving her company press exposure. Once people started hearing about the idea, her phone began ringing off the hook.
Both Madsen and Dunakin said they hope more people get into the goat herding business—and see a real need for it, especially in the niche of wildfire prevention. Unfortunately, becoming a shepherd isn’t usually the career of choice for many young people.
“Not too many people want to be herders in the U.S.; to live a nomadic lifestyle,” Madsen said. “But millennials are starting to look back, some may want to get back to the land.”
Renee Lewis is an environmental reporter based in the Pacific Northwest. Follow her @renee5lewis55