These ravenous goats could be the next best tool to fight Colorado’s megafires
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Whether it’s bushy, bushy, leafy, prickly, or even poisonous, there’s a good chance Lani Malmberg’s goats will eat it. Guided by their border collies and portable electric fences, Malmberg’s herd of 1,500 roams the West, munching through overgrown brush up to eight feet tall (while standing on their hind legs), filling their belly while protecting Colorado and other states from wildfires.
Firefighters call the vegetation on the goats’ menu a fuel ladder, a flammable link that allows ground fires to jump easily into the canopy of trees above. Eliminate the rungs and you slow the growth of an inferno. The Malmberg herd also “eats the problem and recycles it,” she says, meaning that while grazing, it poops. This boosts organic matter in the soil, increasing the earth’s ability to hold water and reducing erosion. Additionally, the mass of goats moving down the slopes smooths out steep drop-offs, preventing or lessening the severity of landslides if a fire crosses the area. In other words, goats pose a triple threat to anyone looking to reduce the intensity of wildfires in a time of drought fueled by climate change.
Malmberg, 64, got into the business after graduating from Colorado State University in 1996 with a master’s degree in weed science (no, not that kind). “I had never seen a goat in my life,” she says. But looking for an alternative to chemicals for her weed control business – and because she wanted to work outdoors with her children – Malmberg started what is now called green goat the same year she graduated. However, as wildfires grew in number and size across the West, Malmberg customers became more concerned about the fires than the weeds. Today, nearly 100% of Goat Green’s business is fire mitigation.
Malmberg and his son Donny Benz, 38, lead the herd from a home base in Wellington, although they are not there often. Governments, land managers and owners hire Goat Green, which moves the herd via rented tractor-trailers along with four-deck cattle transporters. “We live in RVs with the goats wherever we are,” says Malmberg. They work year-round and have worked in 17 states, from HOAs in Elizabeth to open spaces in Westminster and Broomfield to a movie star’s estate near Jackson, Wyoming (she declines to name which). For the past two years, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has hired the herd to clear the slopes of Glenwood Canyon. “Lani’s goats can get into topography that machines can’t,” says Kristy Wallner, silt-based course management specialist at BLM. “You reduce the amount of herbicides in the soil. And goats consume about a quarter of the water that cattle consume and graze in different areas. We need more people to start using them to manage vegetation on public lands. »
Goat Green works there. In 2020, Malmberg and Benz founded the nonprofit Goatapelli Foundation to train the next generation of goat farmers. Interns first complete an online course and then work with Goat Green for 30 days. After that, students either apprentice with Malmberg or complete 10 fieldwork sessions with another team member over two years before finally receiving certification from Goatapelli. Not only do novices learn skills, but they also have ample opportunity to decide whether a career that could involve enduring minus 30 degree temperatures, battling an antelope stuck in an electric fence, and dealing with thugs throwing fireworks at goats, to name a few challenges that Malmberg and Benz have taken on – it’s really for them.
More Goat outfits have popped up in recent years, some of them belonging to Malmberg’s proteges, but none yet approach the size of Goat Green. “We must be 1,000 with 1,000 heads each working in Colorado right now,” Malmberg says. As wildfires threaten homes and ecosystems in an increasingly warming world, Malmberg believes preventing, rather than just fighting, fires will save money and lives. The key to making this change may well be more hooves on the ground.
Channel your inner goat
We cannot leave fire mitigation entirely to our four-legged friends. Here are three ways to help prevent fires.
Team Rubicon, a humanitarian organization, travels the world to provide disaster services, even before disaster strikes. The group is coordinating fire mitigation efforts across Colorado, including a project later this year that will focus on clearing forests near the hamlet of Jamestown.
The National Fire Protection Association provides a plethora of online resources on how to protect your property. However, if you are looking for more practical instructions, call your local fire department. Foothills Fire and Rescue (in the Lookout Mountain area), for example, recently launched a home assessment program: For $100, the department’s fire marshal will inspect your property and provide a report on areas that need to be treated, such as leaves dried in your gutters.
During the last legislative session, Colorado lawmakers passed Bill 22-1011, which earmarks $10 million for local community fire mitigation efforts. The problem? Applicants must agree to match the state contribution. So contact your town hall and tell them to make room in the budget. —Spencer Campbell