Flock used to manage vegetation and reduce fire risk

A new species can be sighted along the Laguna de Santa Rosa Trail. In fact, it’s hard to miss the 200 sheep grazing the fields just outside of Sebastopol. The flock was moved to the Laguna, a Sonoma County Regional Park, in an effort to control invasive plants, restore endangered plants and remove fire fuels.

Hattie Brown, natural resources program coordinator for Sonoma County Regional Parks said the Laguna Trail area is home to one of very few natural populations of the critically endangered plant Sebastopol meadowfoam.  The trail runs along the east side of the Laguna from Highway 12, near the Chevron gas station, north to Occidental Road, near Balletto Vineyards.

“We are hoping this change in management will help support the natural recovery of this species and conduct annual monitoring to see whether or not our actions are having an effect,” she said. “We are also controlling invasive weeds without the use of herbicides and working with many, many partners to do the work.”

Similar sheep-grazing, grass-clearing operations are in use in East Bay parklands, such as along the fire trails in the Berkeley-Oakland hills.

For the last three years, the flock now grazing the Laguna was grazing firebreaks at Helen Putnam Regional Park in Petaluma. 

“We consider it a very successful project both reducing the risk of fire, benefiting natural resources, and supporting local agriculture,” Brown said.

With multiple bear and mountain lion sightings in the area, predators are a concern for the safety of the sheep.

“One benefit to the high-intensity, short-duration grazing model we are using is that the sheep are not in any one spot year round so it is simply harder for predators to find them,” Brown said.

Another concern for the flock is dogs in the park. Brown said dogs are required to be on leash at all county parks and some parts of the trail prohibit dogs.

Aaron Gilliam of Sweetgrass Grazing, an operation based in Petaluma, manages the Laguna flock, which will be grazing the trail area until late August.

Wendy Trowbridge, director of restoration and conservation science programs for the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, said Gilliam manages his sheep to mimic native herbivores by keeping them close together and moving them around the field so that they graze evenly.

Trowbridge said in moist, nutrient rich environments without grazing, grasses will dominate, squeezing out native wildflowers and creating a homogenous, fire-prone, field of grass and thatch.

“Carefully managed grazing can open up these areas, reduce the buildup of thatch and make room for more of the flowering plants that are so critical for pollinators and wildlife,” she said.

The Laguna Foundation received a grant from the Sonoma County Water Agency to establish a conservation grazing program.

“The sheep that you can see right now along the trail are the first step in this critical restoration project,” she said.

For those interested in being part of the new conservation-grazing project, opportunities are available to participate in the Laguna Stewards volunteer program this fall. For more information, visit http://www.lagunafoundation.org/.

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