New York Times | May 16,1999
DENVER, May 15 -A sign in a city park here says it all: “Goats at Work.”
A herd of about 100 Cashmere goats that has been munching at the park and other weed-choked areas around the city since April is working for the City of Denver as part of a program to fight invasive weeds that have taken over native plants and wildlife habitats.
“It’s unusual to have goats graze within the city limits, right along a managed city park,” said Judy Montero, a spokeswoman for the Denver Parks and Recreation Department. “We hope the goats will reduce our use of herbicides and pesticides in the long run.”
This year, the city will spend $50,000 in grant money on this experimental weed control program. The goats will be used to help restore 25 to 35 acres within the city limits, including sites along the Platte River and around Cherry Creek.
“It’s the oldest weed-control technique known to mankind,” said Lani Lamming, an owner of Land Whisperer, the Alpine, Wyo., company that is leasing the goats to the city. “It’s so logical and simple. In my opinion, we’re using life to nurture other forms of life. No natural resources are being wasted.”
Mrs. Lamming, who owns the company with her husband, Fred, said goats preferred the broadleaf weeds to grass, unlike cows and horses, which graze grass first. The herds are managed alternately by the Lammings, their three teen-age sons and professional herders.
The goats, which work in two four-hour shifts daily in a temporarily fenced-in area, can mow down about one acre per day. They can reach areas that machines cannot, and they serve other purposes as they graze: tilling the soil, re-seeding and fertilizing.
Part of the plan for the park is to re-establish native grasses. As the goats are nibbling on the broadleaf weed varieties, a park official said, their hoofs are trampling in seeds of desirable native species distributed by city employees.
The cost of a job varies depending on conditions, but Land Whisperer estimates the average cost is $100 per acre, using 50 to 100 goats.
In the past, the city has relied on mechanical mowing, spraying herbicides and pesticides and pulling weeds by hand. But those methods have hazards: air pollution from mowing and contamination of groundwater from chemical sprays.
“The goats alone can’t get rid of the weeds,” said Gayle Weinstein, a naturalist for the parks department. She said the goats could work the same site only about three times during a growing season and still get enough to eat. After that, most of the seed heads should be gone.
“Then we’ll come in and spray when the plants are weakened, ” she said. “Maybe with this combination we could get rid of the weeds in a couple of years.”
A plan for beautification, and a herd with the munchies.
For Denver, like cities and counties in many other Western states, laws require any landowner, whether a private party or the government, to control noxious weeds on the property or risk being fined or even criminally prosecuted.
If noxious weeds are left uncontrolled, they create a chain reaction of ecological and economical disasters. The weeds eliminate native plants and possibly lower the water supply, harming the wildlife that feeds on those plants. The land can then lose its value for future development, for farming and ranching, and for recreational uses.
“We can lose it all if we allow weeds to take over,” said Dr. John M. Randall, an invasive-weed specialist with the Nature Conservancy in Davis, Calif. “It’s not a stretch to say invasive species -and that includes insects and wildlife as well as plants -are the biggest threat to natural habitats next to development, the subdividing land for housing and shopping malls.”
Although Dr. Randall is in favor of using the goats, he and other experts say the use of goats and other livestock should be in addition to an arsenal of tools to fight noxious weeds.
“One technique is not going to be the silver bullet, and no one should rely on one method,” said Eric Lane, weed coordinator for the Colorado Department of Agriculture.
The state has an annual fund of $225,000 to promote weed control projects on all lands, from Federal to private, Mr. Lane said, and $15,000 was given to the city this year to help pay for the goats. The cost of fighting invasive weeds is even higher in other Western states. In Montana this year, the Legislature passed a bill to put $1.1 million into the state’s noxious weed management trust over the next two years.
“Weed management is extraordinarily expensive, and it requires persistent action,” Mr. Lane said. “The advantages to using the goats are that this technique is uncontroversial, and because the goats are attractive, it gets the public interested too.”