Commentary: Policy change will sideline goats for fire mitigation
Issue Date: May 11, 2022
By Bryan Little
Goats are important for reducing wildfire dangers, but a state rule will make them too expensive.
Across California, ranchers are furnishing goats for fuel-control services to cities, municipalities, college campuses, commercial property owners and others in common areas, rights-of-way, green spaces and greenbelts where potential wildfire fuels must be managed to protect life and property.
These ranchers appreciate the opportunity to use their herds to assist property owners and managers in protecting residents, taxpayers, and users of public spaces from wildfire dangers through environmentally-friendly control of wildfire fuels.
Unfortunately, a recent change in a regulatory interpretation by the California Employment Development Department will preclude those ranchers from continuing to provide fuels mitigation services. That's because EDD decided to abandon a long-standing interpretation governing how ranchers compensate the goat herders as their charges graze.
The policy change will render their fuel control business unsustainable, and they will very soon be forced cease provision of these services. It is a stunning misstep, one that contradicts Newsom administration efforts to address wildfire fuels mitigation after devastating wildfire years.
Virtually all goat herders who watch over the health and welfare of goats undertaking fuels management in California are admitted to the United States under a temporary nonimmigrant agricultural worker program that allows them to work in the U.S. for as long as 10 months, after which they must return to their home country.
To employ herders under this program, a rancher must apply to the U.S. Department of Labor, which works with EDD to determine whether the rancher's proposal to employ goat herders complies with California law. But the result of EDD's recent interpretation will require ranchers employing goat herders in California to pay those herders quadruple the minimum monthly wage for sheepherders—to more than $14,000 per month.
The minimum California wage for sheepherders is already nearly double the federal requirement, which is unsurprising given our state's commitment to the highest standards of employee compensation and safety. But the new extraordinarily high wage standard for a goat herder could mean an astonishing $140,000 in wages over 10 months.
It is a result of EDD's sudden decision that herders who manage goats—and virtually all herders working in California work with both sheep and goats—are not "sheepherders" within the meaning of California regulations. That is despite fact that EDD has considered them to be sheepherders under that very same regulation since 2002.
This change in EDD policy comes at a particularly inopportune time, as ranchers and local communities vulnerable to wildfire are working at an unprecedented level of collaboration to reduce wildfire danger by using goat grazing to control fuels.
Goats are particularly well-suited to wildfire fuels control. While they will graze dry grasses like sheep, goats also devour highly flammable taller brush that sheep don't notice. If EDD's precipitous reinterpretation stands, that will make goat grazing financially impossible for every green space, greenbelt, or other open landscape area adjacent to homes and businesses. Instead, those areas will require fuels mitigation with fossil-fueled heavy machinery—gas-powered, hand-held machines such as chain saws and trimmers—along with use of pesticides and prescribed burns.
These methods are unsuitable in urban and suburban areas, where mitigation through goat grazing makes much more sense. Unfortunately, no municipality or landowner can afford to engage in a program of goat grazing that requires paying herders $14,000 per month. Green spaces will go unmanaged, and homes and businesses will go unprotected.
This change was made with no advance notice and no opportunity for comment or questions. The fallout will affect ranchers and their employees, who will soon be unemployed and obliged to return to their home countries, and others depending on ranchers' services to control wildfire fuels.
Thus far, these agencies have been wholly unresponsive to our concerns about this precipitous change to a regulatory interpretation they had maintained for more than 20 years. Our hope is that common sense will prevail, and the EDD will return to its prior interpretation of the law.
That will allow California ranchers to continue to provide goats to graze and furnish wildfire fuels control in a manner that is sustainable, while protecting homes around green spaces and the lives of those who live, work and go to school nearby.
The California Farm Bureau will continue to work to convince EDD that its errant interpretation of regulations will serve to hinder wildfire fuels management and will not enhance the earnings of goat herders— since they will be out of work, as ranchers and communities can't afford to pay $14,000 per month for their services.
If you live in a community that will lose wildfire fuels mitigation protection, or if you are a rancher unable to continue to provide goats for wildfire fuel mitigation, please contact your California legislators right away. They need to hear your voice.
(Bryan Little is CEO of the Farm Employers Labor Service and director of employment policy for the California Farm Bureau. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.