New Mexico State University researchers and experts from other universities are looking into the possibility that a targeted grazing strategy for range cattle could significantly reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires. "Behavior of wildfires is affected by the abundance of what we call 'fine fuels,'" said NMSU rangeland expert Derek Bailey. "Our assumption is that moderate levels of grazing can be used to strategically reduce the levels of fine fuels and correspondingly limit impacts and economic losses of wildfire."
Bailey teaches in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences and is the director of NMSU's Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center north of Las Cruces. He and other investigators are halfway through a three-year study on targeted grazing.
In some areas, the grasses that fueled normal and periodic low-intensity surface fires in the past have been replaced by densely packed trees and brush that fuel the raging prairie and forest fires seen in recent years, including record-setting 2011 fires in the Southwest.
The Albuquerque Journal (http://bit.ly/uHEbPY ) reports the study is based on the premise that cattle tend to graze unevenly. Their natural tendency is to stay close to water sources, which can lead to deterioration of riparian plant life while leaving an abundance of forage material in more rugged areas or areas away from water. In some cases, the neglected forage exacerbates fire danger.
Targeted grazing at four locations in New Mexico and Arizona involves manually herding cattle into more rugged and remote areas of fuel buildup and determining if the availability of forage, along with the strategic positioning of protein supplement blocks, encourages the animals to spend a higher percentage of their time away from the overgrazed areas around their water source.
To track cattle, Global Positioning System collars are being used to monitor where the cattle in both the control group and the experimental group spend their time.
The project has been implemented at NMSU's Corona Range and Livestock Research Center in central New Mexico and on a U.S. Forest Service grazing allotment in the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona.
Preliminary results suggest that the combination of herding and strategic supplement placement can effectively reduce biomass of fine fuels, Bailey said.