Is Goat Grazing the Answer to Malibu’s Brush Problems?

Dozens of goats go to work clearing brush in the Serra Retreat neighborhood of Malibu in summer 2020.

Over the years, you may have done a double take seeing goats on Malibu hillsides and meadows, chomping away, doing what they love to do: eat grass. Proponents of goat grazing to remove vegetation say it’s a natural fire prevention method—better than weed-whackers, which have been known to spark brush fires in dry, hot, windy conditions. Companies that manage goats for this purpose also tout their light environmental footprint compared to noisy, gas-powered mowers.

Ventura County uses goats for vegetation management around the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, and state grants may be available to municipalities for using goat grazing for fire abatement.

Longtime Malibu resident Anne Payne is a local proponent. She and a couple of her Serra Canyon neighbors hired a herd last summer to graze near their homes. After years of hiring men to do what Payne called the “back breaking” work of brush clearance, the retired teacher said she was very happy with the herd’s results. Payne is now “begging” Malibu City Council to use this practice to help prevent another fire disaster.

“This is a city issue. We should be going after this [state] money,” Payne said in a recent phone call with The Malibu Times. 

“No, I don’t want the county to tell us what we may and may not do. It’s a safety issue,” Payne continued. “This is fire fuel. It needs to be eradicated. You can’t wait until the hot weather. I want the city council to request those state funds. Everybody pretends we’re going to do brush clearance. It isn’t something an individual can do easily. It’s a collective effort. This is a dire problem Malibu has to start facing in the spring and early summer so that by fall we’re clear.”

State Senator Henry Stern, currently the chairman of the CA Senate Natural Resources & Water Committee, has also previously voiced his support for employing goats. 

“We need to invest in fire prevention and protection just as much as we invest in battling blazes,” Stern commented during the 2020 fire season, according to his press office. 

But getting a state grant approved hasn’t been easy for Malibu. 

“Without a city fire department, Los Angeles County Fire Department acts as an agent for Cal Fire, which is basically the state fire department,” Malibu’s outgoing fire liaison Jerry Vandermeulen explained. “They have a vested interest in providing the best fire protection they can and taking preventative measures.” When a prescribed burn proposed near Big Rock in 2019 was abandoned after community concerns, LACoFD applied for a $90,000 grant in 2020 to use goats as a fuel reduction measure. The grant was awarded by Cal Fire, but needed acceptance from the LA County Board of Supervisors. In July of 2020, 40 people sent in public comments to the board: 20 were in favor of the grant, 18 opposed and two “others.” One of the “others” commented, “no clue.” 

One of the opponents to the grant was preservationist and recently reappointed Malibu Planning Commissioner Kraig Hill. While proponents of goats claim they eat invasive mustard leaving room for native and less flammable plants to grow, the 50-year Malibu resident with a master’s degree in coastal management said goats were not the answer.

“The use of goats, while well-meaning, would in the longer term create greater fire hazard to the community and negatively alter the local ecosystem permanently,” Hill, recently reinstated to the Malibu Planning Commission by Council Member Bruce Silverstein, wrote in his opinion to the supervisors. “Goats do not have the ability to be selective and target invasive plant species. They don’t even eat the invasive fountain grass that is rapidly taking over the Eastern end of Malibu. They do, however, eat other native plants and once that is clear to bare earth the ground will become open for invasives to take over. Ironically, Big Rock has so many invasive grasses largely because of how much it has been weed-whacked and goat-eaten in the past.

“The science is clear,” Hill continued. “The only helpful clearance is within 100 feet of structures and then maybe more sparsely within 200 feet. It actually helps to retain brush to act as an ‘ember filter’ to keep the embers that blow for miles from blowing right up to structures. The notion of creating a fire-break—as though embers don’t travel miles—represents an out-of-date approach to fire mitigation.”

After public comments on Aug. 4, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl motioned the matter be referred back to the fire department where it apparently sits today. 

Several efforts to reach LACoFD were unanswered.