A tribe of goats is making lunch out of Gambel oak stands in a subdivision northeast of Durango – and helping the community reduce its wildfire risk along the way.
Edgemont Highlands, a 430-home subdivision, has put a concerted effort into wildfire mitigation projects since 2012. Normally, those projects include sawyer crews and contractors trimming back overly dense Gambel oak and ponderosa pine groves. This year, residents decided to try something new and brought in more than 100 Spanish goats to do the job.
“It just seemed like a great, environmentally sensitive idea,” said Ron Duvall, chairman of the subdivision’s fire mitigation committee.
Edgemont Highlands spans 500 acres, 200 of which are designated as open space. People are drawn to the area for its forested landscape, with dense stands of Gambel oak and ponderosa pines, stream drainages, meadows and steep slopes.
“As conditions change, we’ve become drier with less winter snowfall and less of a monsoon season,” said Duvall, former U.S. Forest Service administrative officer. “So we’re drier and more fire-prone.”
Populated areas in La Plata County have, on average, greater wildfire likelihood than 89% of other counties in Colorado, according to the U.S. Forest Service Wildfire Risk to Communities project. “Wildfire likelihood” is the annual probability of wildfire burning in a specific location.
Communities in the county have increasingly embraced wildfire risk mitigation after seeing large fires, such as the 416 Fire in 2018 and the Missionary Ridge Fire in 2002.
The Edgemont Highlands Community Association put together a Community Wildfire Protection Plan in 2012 and has been trimming hazardous plant life ever since.
“People have been very supportive,” Duvall said. “When you have something like the 416 Fire burned in their memory – pun intended – they’re very supportive of the efforts that the volunteer committee is doing.”
The goats, managed by Rx Grazing Services, began tackling 13 acres of Gambel oak and western snowberry bush near the Pioneer Trail in late May. Their job was to munch around a steep slope near Florida Road (County Road 240) – where a spark from something like a dragging vehicle chain or discarded cigarette butt could spark a blaze that runs up the steep slope.
“If it was flat land, we could use other tools that would be cost-effective,” Duvall said. “Since it’s on a slope, the goats are really effective.”
Goats remove brush and leave larger, older oak stems. They help reduce ladder fuels, plants that can carry fire into the tree canopy, and the density of the plant life.
But they bring more than just hungry bellies and agility for navigating the steep slopes, said Sarah Bangert, owner of Rx Grazing Services.
“The neat thing about using goats as a tool is, when managed correctly, livestock grazing can do some really important things for the soil through hoof impact and nutrient deposition,” Bangert said. “(They’re) just kind of waking the soil up and drilling organic matter into the soil.”
The herd will come back for three consecutive years to complete the job. Even with multiple visits, the goats are about 40% less expensive than a chainsaw crew, Duvall said.
The grazing weakens the root system and can deter new growth; chainsaw treatment, on the other hand, can grow back vigorously within seven years.
“You still need the sawyers. If you have big oak underneath a pine tree, you have to cut that and remove it,” Duvall said. “The goats can’t get up there, so you have to take those ladder fuels out with a chainsaw. You use them in conjunction with each other.”
While fire mitigation via goat might be novel in Southwest Colorado, it has been used in other areas, like California and northern Colorado, since the 1990s, Bangert said.
Her herd, based in Lewis, has regularly tackled 100-acre spans for brush control and invasive plant removal since 2019.
“The need is endless,” she said. “You could run thousands of goats in this country and just start making a dent with what needs to be controlled, especially with the issues we have in our forests with the excessive fuel loading and drought.”
Once the goats wrap up Sunday near the Pioneer Trail, Bangert will herd them through the neighborhood to a 3-acre project near Red Canyon Trail.
Residents hope they will get an effective defensible space out of the project while setting an example for other communities.
“We’re just excited to try this out,” Duvall said.
An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Edgemont Highlands subdivision.