Sheep graze at the San Marcos Foothills Preserve in the spring of 2019 | Credit: Courtesy Channel Islands Restoration

Santa Barbara’s landscapes have a fluffy, unlikely hero: sheep. 

Environmental nonprofit Channel Islands Restoration (CIR), in cooperation with Cuyama Lamb, began their sheep grazing program three years ago for the ecological benefits it could provide along the South Coast. However, following the program’s introduction to the San Marcos Foothills Preserve in spring 2019, sheep grazing soon proved itself to be a viable wildfire prevention method — a point stressed at a community meeting held this December to raise support for the program heading into the New Year.

When the November 2019 Cave Fire swept down the Santa Ynez Mountains, “most firefighters were convinced that the fire would burn into the developed neighborhoods in the North La Cumbre area and had the potential to result in significant structure loss,” according to a letter from County Fire Marshal Rob Hazard to CIR’s executive director, Ken Owen. “This did not happen, no structures were lost, and the primary reason was the buffer provided by the grazed area in the preserve,” Hazard wrote. 

After three years of grazing at the San Marcos Foothills, which had temporary funding from 2019 to 2021, CIR is looking to make the program an ongoing one to continue to encourage native plant growth and reduce wildfire fuel. Funding the grazing program, though, is not cheap. It costs about $30,000 to graze 50 acres, depending on factors like how quickly the sheep graze (on average, one pass of grazing lasts one to three days) and local weather conditions. 

“We’re turning to the community, now, for support for this program,” Owens said at the community meeting, which was held December 21 at the San Marcos Foothills. “It’s not something that’s easy to fund … but the benefits to this local community were immense in 2019. And it’s worth it … to help reduce wildfire in this area, and, at the same time, to benefit the ecology for the animals that call this place their home.” 

Those benefits include weeding out invasive plant species, restoring and promoting the growth of native vegetation, and bringing back native birds, not to mention reducing the nonnative vegetation in grasslands that act as fuel for wildfires.

In recent years, the state of California has understandably invested a lot of resources into fire control and resilience. “We’re forced to do that because things are getting dryer, there’s less rain, and the fires are getting more and more intense,” Owens said. “Elected officials are looking at our program as a model, because we got into this for environmental reasons, we got into this to save the grasslands, not destroy them. You can do both with sheep … it just depends on how you manage them, and we do it very carefully.”

Grazing slowed the impact of the 2019 Cave Fire in Santa Barbara | Credit: Courtesy Channel Islands Restoration

In terms of land management, Jack Thrift Anderson, a shepherd for Cuyama Lamb, which provides the sheep for the program, said that the idea of leaving the grasslands alone as a form of “natural” land management is a “fallacy.” 

“We are ourselves, natural, and these lands have never been unmanaged,” Anderson said. “Cuyama Lamb was developed about five years ago to be at that intersection of how do we manage land for its needs and be in partnership with the plants and animals in those spaces?”

Anderson said that Cuyama Lamb has been involved in many projects for pasture improvement, focused around controlling invasive weeds and benefiting ecological diversity. “We then, very quickly, came into fire fuel management as a practice.”

Speaking at the meeting at San Marcos Foothills, Santa Barbara Assemblymember Gregg Hart called upon the community for their support in preserving the grassland. Hart acknowledged the State of California’s role in helping organizations like CIR in protecting the state’s natural spaces and the importance of investing at the early stages in managing the ecology of natural spaces to prevent catastrophic wildfires. He also referenced the Foothills Forever Campaign, which has helped organize efforts and community donations to protect the land from development and transfer ownership of the property to the county. 

“I think all of us probably have our own personal connection to this land,” Hart said. “It’s not an accident that our community has preserved this space; it’s been very intentional… The challenge, now, is to maintain this property, protect it, and enhance it, most importantly.”

“We really rely on organizations like Channel Islands Restoration to do the science-based work to protect this property,” Hart continued. “And they need help… When an emergency happens, and fires are raging down from the hills, we really don’t spare any resources to protect the people and the property that are in the path of the fire, and that’s, of course, what we need to do. But we also need to be more thoughtful, and get ahead of the curve, and like so many things in our world, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

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