Goats are great at preventing fires. But are their herders exploited?

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Goat grazing can be an environmentally-friendly alternative to the use of heavy machinery or herbicides for fire prevention. Photo by Shutterstock.

In California, goat grazing has increasingly been used as a fire prevention method. The city of Glendale recently unleashed 300 of the grass-hungry creatures to clear dry vegetation from the city’s overgrown hillsides. 

Proponents tout these goats as an environmentally friendly alternative to other methods of vegetation management, like herbicides or heavy machinery. But the grazing industry’s explosion statewide has come with growing pains. 

The issues stem from a reclassification — by the state's Employment Development Department — of the herders who manage goats. These workers are mostly immigrants from Peru, and they often need to stay on-site to monitor the goats for 24 hours per day. They were historically exempt from the state’s minimum wage laws.

Last year, that exemption was removed — meaning many goat-herding businesses may soon be required to quadruple their employees’ take-home pay. 

Samson Zhang, who covered the issue for the Sacramento Bee, says this has left owners of grazing businesses reeling. 

“What the owners of these businesses have said is: This isn't an hourly job … these herders aren't working 24/7,” Zhang says. “And surely, there's a better way to … compensate them for their time and their on-call time on the job, than paying them at $200,000 a year.” 

The issue has drawn mixed reactions among Peruvian herders themselves, says Zhang, many of whom come to the U.S. using H-2A visas that require them to stay for three years without returning home. 

Some say they were happy with their previous wages, which were higher than the rate at home. But critics say the system was allowing immigrant workers to be exploited — in order to do jobs that Americans don’t want. 

This has resulted in policy disputes at the state level. A coalition called Save California Goats has been pushing to cement the minimum wage exception into state law, while critics — like Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation — have pushed for reform.

“[Fletcher’s] perspective was: If we have to go to the ends of the earth to find workers who are willing to do this work, willing to be on the job site 24/7 at this lower rate, then the market is not working,” says Zhang. “Then we need to rethink: Okay, maybe we should pay higher, or maybe we should figure out a system where we can have people on shifts, we can have people there for shorter periods of time.”

Those who make use of the goat services, like Patty Mundo, vegetation management inspector for the City of Glendale, hope a solution will be reached soon. If not, continuing to use this technique for fire suppression could be difficult. 

“It's definitely going to affect us because we only have so much money in our budget for the goats,” she says. “And I would imagine it's gonna affect the major cities in Southern California as well.”



  • Samson Zhang - reporter for the Sacramento Bee
  • Patty Mundo - vegetation management inspector for the City of Glendale