Pueblos turn to goats for fire management

Minesh Bacrania/High Country News

In early October, just north of Albuquerque on the Sandia Pueblo, the bleating of over 70 Boer and Spanish goats pierced the tranquility of the bosque forest, a gallery of towering cottonwoods and willows on the eastern bank of the Rio Grande that’s long been prized for its biodiversity. Under the shade of the native trees, the animals eagerly licked and chewed the bark and branches of knee-high invasive plants like young Siberian, or dwarf, elms and bright green tamarisk, or saltcedar.

Up until 1973, regular flooding on the Rio Grande helped keep the bosque ecosystem healthy and the invasive plants under control. The floodwaters spread tree seeds to higher ground and added nutrients to the soil, while clearing weeds away. But over the past half-century, after the Cochiti Dam and other infrastructure projects were built to manage the Rio Grande, the regular flooding ended. Now, invasive weeds and shrubs like tumbleweeds, Siberian elms, Russian olives, and tamarisk flourish up and down the bosque.

Without the floods, it’s hard to mitigate the fire risk and nourish native plants, said Michael “Scial” Scialdone, an energetic forest specialist who was hired by the tribe as the bosque project’s manager. Invasive species have slowly edged out the native cottonwoods and willows and contributed to devastating wildfires. The 2012 Romero Fire, for example, started west of the Sandia Pueblo’s border but ended up blasting through tribal grasslands and ravaging over 300 acres of the bosque.

The brown-and-white foragers, which are owned by Max Wade, a rancher in the neighboring town of Rio Rancho, were there to devour these non-native species, which cover the forest floor in flammable fuels. Working through the state’s forestry division, the tribe invited Wade’s goats onto the bosque in June to help mitigate the risk of wildfires. Since then, the herd has nibbled through 40 acres of brush.

We’re North of this Pueblo up in Santa Fe County. Used to be county law everything outside the city of Santa Fe was free range. That meant grazing cattle could be free to roam just about anywhere they pleased and that eventually got the regulation reversed. Which frankly, we and our neighbors pretty much welcomed. Every home’s lot in our subdivision is edged with a strong fence topped by barbed wire. Not to keep any critters in; but, to keep cows out.

Most of the Bosque through our patch is bordered by county or state roads on one side…and a fire road on thr other…kept clear for firefighting access [if needed] and also serves well as a fire break. I’d worry about goats straying out onto the county road. Which is where the odd cow was clobbered every now and then BITD.

5 thoughts on “Pueblos turn to goats for fire management

  1. nicknielsensc says:

    I ran into a cow once, in a mountain fog. I was only moving at about 20-25 mph and it still felt like I’d hit a wall. Totaled both the cow and the car.

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