The sheep have arrived in Carson City for their annual spring job - scouring the hillsides on the west side of town to reduce highly flammable cheat grass.
Supported by Carson City's Open Space Division, along with the Nevada Division of Forestry, Nevada State Lands and the U.S. Forest Service, the effort is part of a hazardous fuels reduction project to remove cheat grass and other non-native vegetation that has sprouted since the 2004 Waterfall Fire, said Carson Ranger District Fuels Specialist Steve Howell.
The project involves more than 2,000 acres of private, city, state and federal land, upon which the sheep will graze for the next two months.
"This is a cost-effective way to manage the non-native vegetation, where chemical treatment and prescribed burning are not possible," Howell said.
"Cheat grass is native to Eurasia. In North America, it has no biological predators, which allows it to grow uncontrolled, potentially altering the ecosystem and affecting the frequency of wildfires in the area," he said.
Ann Bollinger, natural resource specialist for Carson City's Open Space Division, said about 670 ewes and 700 lambs were on the job as of Monday on the hills behind Greenhouse Garden Center. Even more ewes and lambs will be trucked in later as newborn baby lambs get to be a few weeks of age.
Stock trailers with several levels carrying sheep are transported from the Borda Land and Sheep Co. out of Gardnerville.
"It's kind of fun to watch the sheep unloading," she said. "There is no direct cost to the city, only my time to monitor the project. There is a small grant that pays for the transportation costs."
Bollinger said she uses a number of tools to monitor the project, including small 3-foot-high pyramid-shaped cages to enclose grassy areas and help gauge grazed versus ungrazed areas.
"Unfortunately, several of the cages have disappeared. If anyone has seen them, please call 887-2262 - no questions asked - so they can be returned, and I can use them again this year. It's difficult to monitor effectiveness without the tools," she said.
"For the first time, we have a temporary fence along McKay Drive near the LDS church. The idea is that we can keep the sheep closer to the urban interface for a longer period of time. We'd like them to eat more vegetation, and the fence will keep them from wandering off into the neighborhoods," Bollinger said.
In addition to using sheep to manage and reduce the fine fuels such as the grasses, she said, Open Space and the Carson City Fire Department have been working with contractors and using hand tools, or masticators, to thin sagebrush and rabbitbrush.
"In March, a seven-acre area was thinned in a mosaic pattern near the Ash Canyon drainage off Longview Way," she said.
The sheep grazing project always begins in April, and the sheep camps are moved to a new spot after three or four nights in one place, Bollinger said.
"They eat the cheat grass and seed heads when (the plant) is green, and seed heads won't grow anymore this year. Our goal is not to eliminate cheat grass, but to reduce it in order to reduce the fire hazard" of the volatile grass.
Two sheepherders watch over the flocks by day and sleep in their trailers at night. For extra insurance, a Great Pyrenees protects the sheep from predators like coyotes and cougars. A couple of sheepherding dogs are also on the job, and fencing is sometimes used to protect the flock, Bollinger said.
The sheep will remain on the hillsides until Memorial Day ending their work in the Lakeview area. Residents are invited to visit the sheep, but are asked to keep their dogs on a leash.