(CNSNews.com) - As the U.S. Forest Service confronts an active fire season with fewer fire-fighters, it is turning to goats for help. The animals are turned loose to eat the brush before flames can consume it.
A blog on the Agriculture Department website says 1,400 goats recently munched their way through the Cleveland National Forest as part of an experimental project to clear a 300-foot area between the forest and adjacent residential areas.
The fuel break, as it is called, will protect homes in the San Diego area from wildfires that begin in the forest as well as from fires that start on private land and spread to the forest.
The blog said the goats "were specifically tasked" to reduce and slow the regrowth of vegetation, particularly chamise, a type of evergreen shrub found in California and Northern Mexico. The shrub sprouts quickly after being cut, so the project will determine if the goats are a more economical way to combat the rapid regrowth."
Six border collies served as herding dogs and two Anatolian guard dogs were used to protect the goats from coyotes, mountain lions and people.
“To clear a fuel break normally means lots of human power and machinery, including chainsaws, hand tools and safely burning piles of brush,” said Palomar District Ranger Joan Friedlander.
“We will continue to evaluate other methods that will best meet our objectives of protecting and sustaining the forest and community,” Friedlander said. “But the goats could prove to be a useful resource to have in our toolkit, particularly in areas where more conventional methods may not work as well.”
Goat-powered fuel-reduction costs between $400-$500 per acre, nearly one-third of the cost of more labor-intensive methods of brush clearing, the Forest Service said.
Project organizers said the experiment with goats had the added benefit of generating "tremendous" community support and interest in the forest-thinning project.
The initial goat-grazing project was completed in May, and the Forest Service says it will now monitor both pre– and post-treatment plots to compare the effectiveness of goats with brush-clearing machinery.
"No 'kidding,' these goats contributed to forest health merely by being hungry," the blog concluded.
Last month, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the nation faces a "difficult" fire season with fewer resources.
"We've had some serious drought obviously in 2012, which has continued in many parts of the country. And so we are preparing and expecting a challenging season," he said in a May 13 conference call.
At the peak of fire season, Vilsack expects to have "roughly 13,000 firefighters" available, but because of "significantly challenged budgets," that's about 500 fewer firefighters than would otherwise be on hand.
"There will obviously be fewer firefighters. There'll be fewer engines," Vilsack said. "And hopefully we'll be able to manage this situation and ensure that people are protected and their property is protected -- I mean, that's the ultimate goal."