How BC cows are helping fight wildfires

Photo by Cameron Watson/ Shutterstock

They look like regular cattle munching grass. But for a few weeks in late May and early June, 30 cows and their calves are doubling as wildfire control specialists. They’re grazing 45 hectares of public land near the edge of Kelowna—and protecting the BC city, one bite at a time.

The herd is “feeding on the spring grass, and ideally knocking down the fine fuel hazard at the same time,” says the city’s urban forestry supervisor, Andrew Hunsberger. The goal is to shield a southeastern neighbourhood from wildfires like the one that killed two people and burned 151 homes and businesses last summer near Lytton, BC.

“It’s similar to when you keep mowing your lawn. The grass stays green instead of maturing and going dormant,” says Amanda Miller, a BC range ecologist studying the province’s “targeted grazing” program. During three or four few weeks of grazing cows remove about 30 per cent of the grassy fuel in these grassland and open forest areas—making fires far less intense if they ignite.

The province launched the “targeted grazing” pilot project in 2019 with a $500,000 contribution to the project’s organizer, the BC Cattlemen’s Association. Since then ranchers have grazed areas near Cranbrook, Peachland, and Summerland, and the program expanded to Kelowna this year. To concentrate cows in key areas, the association has installed fencing, water troughs, and self-closing spring-loaded gates so that people can enter the zone to use trails.

Because cows cover rough terrain and work for food, Hunsberger says grazing makes a good fit with other fire control measures, including forest thinning, prescribed fire, and landscaping around homes and cottages. “If this goes well, we’re hoping we can expand the program,“ he adds. “After the big fire season last year, the idea of finding innovative ways to reduce the fire threat seems to appeal to people.”

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