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Grazing program offers green way to cut grass, reduce fire danger in Sonoma County

Landowners looking for a biologically beneficial way to reduce the wildfire threat from overgrown grass and brush now have a green alternative to mowing, spreading chemicals or lighting controlled fires.

A website created by Sonoma County’s UC Cooperative Extension enables landowners to connect with livestock owners to rent cattle, sheep or goats to devour the worrisome vegetation, restoring what used to be one of nature’s ways.

“It’s a dating service for grazing,” said Stephanie Larson, county director and livestock and range management adviser for the UC service.

The website at matchgraze.com offers a statewide map of livestock owners, known as contract grazers, listing the services each one offers.

There are 36 grazers and two landowners enrolled in the program. Larson knows of no matches so far, but the UC Cooperative Extension started it to address California’s burgeoning concern over hazardous fuels on range lands, pastures and private parcels.

“This is hopefully a revival,” she said.

The cost of grazing arranged through Match.Graze depends on the scope and circumstances of each project.

County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins gave the nascent program a hearty endorsement, saying it serves as a step toward “launching an aggressive countywide grazing program.”

“This is a framework we can invest in,” she said.

Supervisors on Tuesday voted to spend $25 million on vegetation management, along with $10 million on affordable housing, from PG&E’s $149 million settlement linked to the 2017 wildfires.

The board articulated no plans for the wildfire protection program, but Hopkins said the county needs to help property owners acquire the requisites, such as fencing and water, to support grazing on their land.

Sarah Keiser, owner of Wild Oat Hollow, a family farm in Penngrove, is a registered grazer and avid booster of substituting hooved creatures for gas-powered mowers and herbicides.

“When the animals have done their work you feel safer,” said Keiser, who has literally walked her sheep and goats to 10 of her neighbors’ properties.

Large-scale commercial grazers truck hundreds or thousands of animals, along with portable fencing and water, if needed, to overgrown sites.

Grazing solves a landowner’s problem while feeding the animals, who leave behind the positive impact of their hooves, manure and urine that enriches the soil, Keiser said.

Prescribed grazing also rejuvenates growth of native grasses, mimicking a natural process that occurred for centuries when herds of bison, elk and deer roamed the land, advocates say.

“It’s kind of like the way the system was supposed to be,” Keiser said.

Grazers come with various appetites: cattle that graze on open grassland, sheep that feast on large, leafy plants and browsing goats that consume nuisances like broom, blackberries, poison oak and young bay trees.

“They love all that stuff,” said Keiser, who has 17 sheep and four goats.

Sonoma County Regional Parks deploys grazers as an integral part of its vegetation management program, said Hattie Brown, natural resource manager for the department.

Tolay Lake near Petaluma, at 3,400 acres the largest of the regional parks, along with Foothill Park in the Mayacamas Mountains foothills at Windsor, and oceanfront Gualala Point Park in the northwest corner of the county are among the 10 parks visited by grazers this year.

Grazing reduces fire hazards and curbs invasive species of plants, Brown said.

Nearly half of Sonoma County’s million acres of land has the potential for grazing but only a small fraction of it is managed that way, Larson said.

Keiser launched the Penngrove Grazing Project six years ago to meet needs in her neighborhood, and is now working on community projects in West County. Parcels as small as 2 acres can be involved in such projects, which also afford neighbors an opportunity to collaborate and build community, Keiser said.

Grazing won’t stop a wildfire, but will slow it down and keep it low, Larson said.

In an area on the coast scorched by the Meyers fire in August, Larson said grazed lands fared better than untouched state lands across from Fort Ross State Historic Park.

“It was real evident that grazing makes a difference,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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