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Got Invasives? Get Goats

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Conservation is a crazy business. The state of Pennsylvania decimated their deer herd under the premise that they were saving their forests from overbrowsing by whitetail deer, whereas the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is experimenting with a goat introduction to eat invasive species. This is a bit off the mark as a hunting post, but if you find yourself sitting in a deer stand this fall as some woolly creature comes moseying along, you should probably know the whole story.

14658093431_9dda9eb61b_kThis summer, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary embarked on a wooly experiment: testing the use of goats as a no-chemical alternative to invasive plant removal.  “It was certainly an experience,” laughs Hawk Mountain Director of Land and Facilities Todd Bauman, and he’s not kidding. Testing goats required herders, and mapping areas of invasion with GPS units to measure success over time. Goats also had to be supplemented with hand-pulling and other removal applications to compare the effectiveness of removal methods.

All this fuss for one deceivingly lovely-looking groundcover: Asian stiltgrass, Microstegium vimineum, sometimes called Japanese packing grass, and a major threat to natural areas. Stiltgrass was introduced to the United States in 1919, likely through its use as packing material for porcelain. The bright green invasive quickly forms dense stands and in short time, chokes out native plants and tree seedlings, reduces biodiversity, and depletes the overall health of the ecosystem.

“Even deer won’t eat it, and because the Sanctuary is bisected with a road, water runoff carries the seeds far into the forest and down to lower-level riparian areas,” explains Bauman.

Goats are a new tool in the battle against invasives, and could help remove the grass by eating, especially in areas that are difficult to reach, or in areas with poison ivy. While the ability of goats in eating stiltgrass is still experimental, they have been proven to eat a wide range of unwanted vegetation, including bittersweet, multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, mile-a-minute and more.

Some Eco-Goat Facts:

  • Goats have been used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. Forest Service, and have been used by Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources at two state parks for weed and invasive species control.
  • Some corporations such as Google are now using goats to manage vegetation because it’s a clean air alternative to noisy gas-powered mowers and weed whackers.
  • Goats are agile and light on their feet, so can have less impact at historical and natural sites of importance.
  • Goats will graze all day and respect electric fences, making them an easy source of mobile containment.
  • Goats have a narrow, triangular mouth that allows them to crush what they eat, so seeds that might otherwise get passed through to fertilization are not viable. This is a true advantage, since machine cutting only encourages further growth in the next growth cycle.
  • Goats have special enzymes in their guts that allow them to eat plants that are poisonous to other animals.

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