KUNA, Idaho (AP) - More than 1,000 sheep are chomping their way
though acres of cheatgrass in rural Ada County to protect homes
from potential range fires this summer.
The job is a demonstration project, funded by the Bureau of Land
Management, that puts a 100-yard swath of cleared land between vast
stretches of government-owned desert and outer suburban homes.
"They're four-wheel-drive weed eaters with an attitude," said
Rusty Child, whose herd of 700 sheep and 300 goats were brought in
from Oregon for the job.
With this year's abundant spring rains, a thick carpet of
bluish-green cheatgrass stands knee-high among the taller
rabbitbrush and sagebrush.
But rather than trying to get mowers over the rock-strewn, hilly
terrain, the agency hired Child, a lean 36-year-old native of
Ogden, Utah.
An exotic species that came to America from eastern Russia in
the early 1900s, cheatgrass thrives where native plants are
stressed. After the initial spring greening, it dries, turns pale
brown. Low nutrients and bad taste sends most wild animals on to
forage for other foods. And in the summer, it ignites furiously
from lightning strikes.
Child's contract with BLM calls for removing the fuel build-up
along a strip of land 5 1/2 miles long. He clears about 1/10th of
an acre at a time, following a string of temporary electric fences
powered by a giant solar battery along the way.
The vegetation presents a smorgasbord for the animals. Idaho
fescue, wild alfalfa and crested wheat are first on the menu. But
truthfully, Child said, his sheep and goats are no more fond of
cheatgrass than wild animals. But they will choke it down when
everything else is gone.
"I give them all the ice cream they can eat during the day; but
then they also have to eat the box that it came in at night,"
Child said.
After the herd moves through, all the grassy vegetation has been
nibbled down to about 3 inches and the stubble is trampled into the
ground. It won't grow back again until next year.
Across the two-lane blacktop road, Marla Remmerden says she'll
feel safer with a fire break in place this season. In previous
summers, fires have come perilously close to the home where she
lives with her husband and two daughters.
"When you leave on a trip, you always wonder if your house is
going to be there when you come back home," she said. "This is
cool because it's a natural way of doing things."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)