Livestock Grazing to Prevent Wildfires

In recent years, wildfires devastated rural land across the United States. From California to the Texas Panhandle, the adverse impact has been significant. Those who have researched remedies have proposed a simple fix to reduce wildfire risk: grazing. More specifically, they have identified targeted livestock grazing to reduce the amount of flammable organic material on pastureland.

Over time, many studies have been produced that recommend a variety of options to reduce the amount and severity of wildfires. They include prescribed burns, chemical treatments, and mechanical treatments, according to a USDA article on targeted grazing. Each option has downsides. According to the same USDA article, these methods can be costly and hard to maintain.

Livestock grazing is a sustainable, cost effective-effective, and proven tool to both lower the risk of wildfires and reduce the impact when they do occur. Livestock grazing accomplishes these goals by slowing the spread of the flames and controlling the temperature of the fire due to reduced organic fuel, according to an article from Beef Magazine titled Studies Demonstrate How Cattle Grazing Reduces Wildfire Risk. Simply, livestock graze down annual and perennial grasses, promoting new growth and reducing dead underbrush, which acts as fuel for rangeland fires.

Lowering Risk and Reducing Impact

In the United States, livestock grazing, specifically by cattle, is critical to mitigating the increasing numbers of wildfires. A study titled Cattle Grazing Reduces Fuel and Leads to More Manageable Fire Behavior shared that without cattle grazing, there would be “hundreds or possibly thousands” of additional pounds per acre of fuel on rangelands, which could ultimately result in larger and more devastating fires.

There is a fairly simple solution to this problem according to the same article:

“A strategic grazing program would target grazing on certain areas on the landscape. It should consider maintaining fuel breaks, controlling shrub encroachment, employing grazing near the wildland-urban interface, proximity to urban centers, annual weather patterns, potential sources of ignition, and the realities of grazing operations.”

One example of the magnitude of difference livestock grazing can make is found in a UC Berkeley study, which found beef cattle consumed 11.6 billion pounds of fire fuel in 2017. The study is titled: Benefits of Cattle Grazing for Reducing Fire Fuels and Hazard.

The strategic use of cattle grazing could, and should, meet both fire reduction goals while promoting native ecology and environments. Pertaining to wildfires, livestock grazing reduces fire fuels and fuel continuity while, at the same time, preventing the invasion of non-native shrubs into grasslands.

Researching the Solution

Research is currently being conducted on how livestock grazing can reduce the impact of wildfires. Kirk Davies, a rangeland scientist in southeastern Oregon, detailed his findings on the subject in an article for the Capital Press. Together with other research scientists, Davies produced studies showing grazing early in the season reduces fire risk and provides benefits to native plants.

Currently, Davies and his team are working toward the ability to apply their research on a large scale.

“We are hoping to work with more landscape ecologists, looking at how it applies across the landscape,” Davies said to the Capital Press, “That would include investigating, long-term, how rangeland plant communities respond to fire whether they are grazed or not, and deriving a grazing approach to suit a location’s unique fire risk – deciding how much to graze and in which season for example.”

Creating Fuel Breaks in the Great Basin

While research continues on the benefits of cattle grazing, results from the Great Basin prove the concept is beneficial. Cattle grazing in the Great Basin is used to create fuel breaks on public rangeland according to a USDA article on fuel breaks in the Great Basin. Fuel breaks are strips or blocks of land where vegetation has been reduced, making it easier and safer for firefighters to combat wildfires. When fires reach fuel breaks they slow because they run out of fuel.

Pat Clark, a rangeland scientist, and his team, took the concept of cattle grazing to create fuel breaks and implemented it in the Great Basin, according to the same USDA article. Cattle were turned onto carefully planned fuel breaks in the spring of 2017 in Elko, Nevada. Boise, Idaho soon followed in 2018. Cattle were contained using both traditional fencing around the designated area and corridor fencing.

During this time, ranchers carefully monitored the level of grazing cattle did on the fuel breaks. Once required grazing specifications were met, cattle were removed and placed on alternative grazing allotments. In total, cattle spent roughly a month on each fuel break. This varied depending on the size and layout of the allotment.

The project was declared a success in 2020, when an Elko, Nevada, fuel break helped slow the spread and decrease the intensity of the Boulder Creek Fire. The fuel break allowed firefighters to hold the fire in a road at the center of the fuel break. Also in 2020, the same fuel break helped firefighters contain a fire at 54 acres. In 2021, the fuel break helped reduce potential damage by the Welch Fire. This fire, which started in cheat grass, was rapidly spreading before it reached the fuel break. At the fuel break, firefighters were able to contain the fire at 42 acres when its intensity dropped.


Currently, there is proposed legislation to make livestock grazing a common practice to reduce the amount and impact of wildfires. Congressmen Doug LaMalfa (R-CA) and Gabe Vasquez (D-NM) are working toward this goal with their newly proposed bill, H.R. 7666, titled the Utilizing Grazing for Wildfire Risk Reduction Act.

“Utilizing livestock for fire fuel management is common sense,” said LaMalfa, chairman of the House of Agriculture Subcommittee on Forestry, in a press release. “It’s an important tool that unfortunately isn’t being utilized enough. In California, we’ve seen firsthand what happens when we can’t use every authority available to prevent wildfires.”

The bill aims to make it easier for ranchers with permits to graze on public lands to work with the U.S. Forest Service to utilize their livestock to minimize fire risks. Current legislation makes it extremely difficult for ranchers to become involved in livestock grazing wildfire reduction, according to a Farm Progress report titled Bill Would Use Grazing to Curb Wildfires. In fact, it can take upwards of 10 years to obtain a federal grazing permit, according to the article.

During this time, highly flammable cheat grass grows and spreads rapidly in fields, unable to be eaten down by livestock and increasing the severity and likelihood of future wildfires.

H.R. 7666 will implement a five-part strategy to achieve its goal of using livestock as a wildfire risk reduction strategy. According to the United States Congress, the steps are as follows:

“(1) Completion of reviews (as required under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (U.S.C. 4321 et seq.)) to allow permitted grazing on vacant grazing allotments during instances of drought, wildfire or other natural disasters that disrupt grazing on allotments already permitted; (2) use of targeted grazing; (3) increase use of temporary permits to promote targeted fuels reduction and (4) increased use of grazing as a postfire recovery and restoration strategy, where appropriate; and (5) use all applicable authorities under the law.”

The bill was introduced on March 13, 2024, and was referred to the Committee on Agriculture and the Committee on Natural Resources, where it awaits action.

“New Mexico knows all too well how disastrous wildfires can be for our families and homes,” said Vasquez, a member of the House Agriculture Committee’s Forestry Subcommittee, in the press release. “That’s why I’m proud to introduce the bipartisan Utilizing Grazing for Wildfire Risk Reduction Act. This bill will help cut through red tape and make it easier to use livestock grazing proactively to prevent wildfires and keep New Mexicans safe.”

Helpful Links

USDA on Targeted Grazing for Wildfire Fuel Breaks HERE

Research Article on Cattle Grazing Reducing Fire Fuel HERE

Berkeley Rausser College of Natural Resources on the Benefits of Cattle Grazing for the Reduction of Fire Hazards HERE

Beef Magazine on Livestock Grazing to Reduce Wildfires HERE

Capital Press on Kirk Davies Establishing Grazing as a Rangeland Fire-Management Tool HERE

HR 7666 HERE

Congressman Doug LaMalfa on HR 7666 HERE

Farm Progress on HR 7666 HERE

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