Goats for noxious weeds? Can't be bleat!

Successfully crossed, the goats immediately begin to do their work.
Carbon County Weed District Coordinator Brian Ostwald )foreground) assists in Clark's Fork River crossing of goats for weed control near Edgar.

Despite the scampering, the jumping and the baaahing, there was serious work going on by the Clark’s Fork River near Edgar, in weed management from June 4 - 24. This is the second year that the Montana Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has used biological weed control, in other words, goats. Work crews of men and women were busy hauling the youngest kids and guiding the herd to their targets among the thick bushy clumps of weeds and grasses.

“I see some progress,” said Brian Ostwald, Carbon County Weed District Coordinator and also a wildlife biologist, as the current treatment was completed. “I was truly impressed.” It is a ten year project. While assuming the goats would eat everything, he said they went right for the noxious weeds. “They love that stuff.” The goats were provided by Healthy Meadows, a Red Lodge operation owned and run by Ivan and Chia Thrane. Ostwald noted, “It’s such a professional operation. The county contracts with Healthy Meadows and the BLM contracts them through us.”

The goats had spread out over the island hard at work. Getting them there was a challenge. They had to be transported across the Clark’s Fork, no simple prospect, at the time of snowmelt, its peak. Thrane constructed a mobile shoot system with a holding pen narrowing at the water’s edge. He then extended a temporary ramp for the animals to walk over almost across the river. At the end, they jumped off and it was shallow enough to swim. The work crews formed an assembly line passing scores of little ones just born in the spring across the river. “They’re really cute, but after about 20, they all look alike,” said Ostwald with a laugh. That’s the thing with goatsit may be the only method of weed control that makes everybody smile.

Thrane said it was a unique site with the crossing requiring the right timing. “Goats hate water, so the ramps worked just right. We made sure to cross in the evening when it was lowest.” Once there, it is a natural boundary so they are not in any hurry to cross back. He said goats were superior for weeds for a number of reasons. “They have a 10,000 year reputation for success. Goats target graze, preferring the weeds. Unlike sheep or cattle, they are browsers, not just eating with their heads down but looking up to bushes and above eye level.”

Studies in the U.S., New Zealand and Australia show goats are very effective on weed populations. They can access places other animals (including man) can’t, due to their sure-footedness and are not cowed by steep terrain. Besides eating many plants no animals will touch, their scat excretes very few viable seeds due to their extraordinary digestive systems. Thrane is an enthusiastic expert on their effectiveness: “Between the herd’s hoof actions on soil, the eating of weeds, and even its excrement, it weakens the noxious weed population while literally providing a fertile environment that encourages the native plants to strengthen and compete. It takes time and commitment, but it is highly effective.”

Ostwald said he will probably expand the project based upon the success of the current job. “Everyone I’ve talked to is pretty impressed. It might take a little longer but it’s so much healthier for the land, especially an island.” While he also uses conventional sprays and old fashioned weed pulling, he was adamant, when it came to this riparian situation at the edge of the Clark’s Fork, “It’s the best thing to do.” Ostwald said the county did some burning but that it actually encourages noxious weeds. “I sprayed the interiors but couldn’t get around trees.” He thought the goats would wipe out everything, but they concentrated on the weeds. The island is 60 acres and 70 percent of the trees are cottonwoodsmostly old growth. He said his crew worked well with the team Healthy Meadows brought to the job. “They know what they’re doing.”

Thrane said the goats worked heavily on the thick growths of Leafy Spurge, Hounds Tongue, Canadian Thistle and Spotted Knapweed. With a herd over 250, they can attack an invaded site with gusto and really make a difference. Their work season runs from May to September depending upon the elevation. It was not the only project for Ostwald. “We recently partnered with Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society and Susan Newell to get a group with my crew and go out to the Pryors and pull weeds.” They chose environmentally sensitive spots in Bear Canyon and the group rose to the challenge. “It was a great day,” he said of the effort, noting it was also in cooperation with the Forest Service and the BLM. The agencies also worked earlier at Burnt Timber and Sage Creek.

Ostwald said birders are very conscious of working to preserve native plants. He was concerned about non-noxious plants that were still harmful if not forbidden. “We’ve got non-native bulbous blue grass and cheat grass pushing out the native grasses, especially along roadways.” Ostwald believes in an integrative approach to weed control using herbicides and biologicals where effective. “And,” he reminded CCN, “we are not beyond using the old fashioned method of pulling them out.” Contact: healthymeadows@gmail. com or www.creatinghealthymeadows.com.