Virtual livestock fence could help fight wildfires, study finds

Technology designed to keep livestock on the right grazing land could have a second intriguing benefit, a study finds: it could help manage wildfires on public lands.

Published last month in Rangeland Ecology & Management, the research used virtual fences and livestock to create fuel cuts to prevent fires from spreading.

The virtual fence technology used GPS, special collars and an audio system to keep cattle on the right pastures. Farmers defined the boundaries of the fence and the collars generated brief 8,000 volt ‘electrical stimulation’ shocks for cows that strayed from the fence. The collars also emitted a brief “sound stimulus” after the shocks.

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Researchers looking for ways to deal with wildfires before they start used the collars on 39 cows at Oregon State University’s experimental pasture in southeast Oregon. The state has been plagued by wildfires in recent years, fueled in part by sagebrush habitats that burn and then become overrun by non-native grasses that out-compete native species, dry out quickly and provide even more tinder. for future fires.

During the trial, the virtually fenced cows grazed on a fuel cut in an approximately 1,000 acre pasture for one month. Twenty-three calves also grazed, although they were not fitted with collars. During this time, the cows ate 48.5 percent of the grass inside the fuel cut zone. The vast majority stayed inside the perimeter, although cows with calves were more likely to stray following their calves without collars.

Livestock grazing “is perhaps the only tool that can be realistically deployed at large enough spatial scales to manage grass fuels in fuel breaks,” the researchers write. Firebreaks created by grazing herds can be used as staging areas by firefighting crews and help stop the fire from spreading, they say.

But livestock alone cannot stop sagebrush fires, Chad Boyd, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher who led the study, said in a news release. “Grazing should not be seen in absolute terms,” ​​he said. “It’s a tool that can be used with everything else.”

These tools can’t be developed too soon: So far this year, there have been some 54,000 wildfires in the United States, and they’ve burned nearly 7 million acres of land, according to the National Interagency. Fire Center.