Ask Lookout: Have you seen — or herd — about the goats roaming the UC Santa Cruz campus? 

People on the UC Santa Cruz campus watch goats graze as part of fire prevention efforts.
People on the UC Santa Cruz campus watch goats graze Thursday as part of fire prevention efforts.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

In this installment of Ask Lookout, we investigate the bovine sightings on campus. 

QUESTION: I know it’s only a week since 4/20, but was it my imagination or not when I saw a frolicking herd of goat-like creatures roaming the UC Santa Cruz campus this week?

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Yes, it’s not your imagination. About 300 goats — mostly minding their own business — have been rustling through crunchy brush, napping in the shade and noisily chomping on shrubs in natural areas on the UCSC campus many an afternoon.

Maa-ing and jumping and crying (or bleating), the goats have been popular with students, staff and faculty since they arrived on campus two weeks ago. Their mission: eat up the vegetation that can fuel wildfires and reduce the school’s fire risk.

What might seem unusual is actually a complex, eco-friendly solution to what might be a “ticking time bomb”: wildfire on the sprawling UCSC campus. The August 2020 CZU fire that destroyed more than 900 homes came within a mile of the campus — prompting the first campuswide evacuation in the University of California system.

That was an eye-opener for campus Fire Marshal Nick Otis, who last summer got the approval for the pilot project and started planning, and contracted to bring the goats to campus. UCSC had to do more to slow down wildfires, in his opinion.

“You have to be thinking about when a wildfire is going to be coming,” he said. “Because that’s the new reality, with fire season being kind of a year-round thing now.”

Using livestock is the first, most accessible and affordable part of this larger project, costing the campus $60,000 this year. Otis does also think the goats are pretty adorable.

“This is a fresh approach — something that’s never been done on campus,” he said. “For the cost that we’re doing to have the goats here for the six to seven weeks that we have them here, it’s something that would realistically take our land and tree crews years to achieve, just because of how thick the brush is and what it would require to do that sort of work.”

Environmental studies third-year student Nathaniel Rullamas was among those Thursday who, looking for a place to park, caught a glimpse of the goats and changed course to park and get out to see them up close. At that moment, they were at the Crown/Merrill Apartments.

“It’s actually really cool seeing these goats because we’ve talked about stuff like this in my classes,” he said. “Where they bring in goats to help, eat the undergrowth, and improve fire safety. And also, it’s just good for the whole ecosystem. And they’re also really cute.”

The goats will roam 30 acres across several areas including the UCSC Farm, the Chadwick Garden, the Quarry Amphitheater and in some of the difficult-to-manage ravines. UCSC proper spreads across 2,000 acres, of which 1,000 acres is developed.

A goat grazes on shrubs on the UC Santa Cruz campus as part of fire prevention efforts.
A goat grazes on shrubs on the UC Santa Cruz campus Thursday as part of fire prevention efforts.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

By consuming the shrubs, like thistle or anything green in the prime of spring, the goats reduce the amount of vegetation that would otherwise dry up and be potential fuel for wildfires.

“We identified all what we call the buffer zones, which are the areas that we felt were the most at risk if we had a wildfire,” explained Otis. “And the reality of that is, it’s going to come from — and this is what we experienced in 2020 — it’s going to come from the north, or there’s a likelihood it would come from state parks to the east of the campus.”

After the goats finish eating up the vegetation, UCSC tree crews will crunch up the brush with a masticator that will spit it out in the form of wood chips. At the same time, the lower branches of trees will be cut down in order to thin out the lower levels of the trees.

This whole process creates a buffer zone.

“So if we ever had an instance where there was risk of wildfire, we have these zones that will slow down the spread of a fire as it approaches campus,” Otis said. “Most wildfires occur because they go through the shaded fuels.”

If the pilot project becomes a regular practice on campus, Otis and other officials will continue to assess which zones the goats should cover.

In addition to the goat project, Otis weighs other long-term strategies, including controlled burns, on which UCSC is working with Cal Fire, the fire department of the California Natural Resources Agency. It’s also partnering with the California Conservation Corps to provide more labor and better equipment to remove those wildfire fuels.

In the meantime, the goats, which hail from Sycamore Farms in Coalinga, will move from plot to plot for the next few weeks.

On the weekend menu for the munchers: the newly rebuilt Quarry Amphitheater grounds, where the goats will have to show off their climbing finesse, scaling steep ravines to get to the greenery.

People watch fire-prevention goats graze on the UC Santa Cruz campus
People watch fire-prevention goats graze on the UC Santa Cruz campus Thursday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )