Move over, Smokey Bear; make room for about 900 sheep, specially programmed to devour around 400 acres of grasses in dangerous abundance beneath the steep oak canopies of Tepusquet Canyon. At least, that was the county supervisors’ message last week when approving a $250,000 contract with Cuyama Lamb LLC to do just that.
Thus far, the sheep have devoured much of the grassy understory of 194 acres with another 200 to go. The sheep don’t feed on the pulpier chaparral that burns much hotter, but instead on the quick-flash grasses that burn without much provocation and spread in even a slight breeze.
“They do a good job,” said County Fire Marshal Rob Hazard.
When the sheep are through, he said, they leave a landscape that looks professionally weed-whacked and raked up. What would cost hand crews $5,000-$10,000 an acre to clear costs Cuyama Lamb LLC $500-$800 an acre.
Goats, Hazard said, are somewhat better in attacking the chaparral but are more prone to spreading the seeds of exotic and invasive species in their droppings. The term of art for this practice, Hazard noted with rueful appreciation, is “prescribed herbivory.”
This is just one ingredient in a much bigger, multi-pronged, multi-year plan to reduce the fire risk of 42,500 fire-prone acres of Tepusquet Canyon, for which $6.4 million in state and federal grants have been obtained. Hazard said another $1.9 million grant has just been secured to use sheep to clear about 3,000 grassy acres almost all the way from Gaviota to Montecito.
“None of this is costing the county a dime,” Hazard stated.
It all starts with cap-and-trade money generated by the state to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the first place and then trickles down to CalFire’s Climate Change Fire Prevention program.
Also included in this package will be 32 miles of roadside fuel reduction, 2,064 acres of controlled burns, 138 acres for strategic fuel breaks, and the creation of community defensible space zones. But for now, it’s the sheep, all 900 of them.
“It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge,” Hazard said. “You’re never done. You’re never out of the woods.”