Megan Tackett, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
This month, about 1,000 goats will descend upon the midvalley, munching on delicacies that bipeds disregard as weeds.
The Bureau of Land Management oversees the 80 acres at Sutey Ranch near Carbondale and the 33 acres in the Lake Christine Fire burn area near El Jebel that will benefit from the contracted goats’ presence over the next three weeks or so.
“Goats will eat plants livestock and wildlife won’t, such as noxious weeds, and return the nutrients from these plants back to the soil,” Kristy Wallner, BLM range management specialist, said in a statement. “Combined with reseeding, targeted grazing should improve wildlife habitat by increasing native plant abundance and diversity.”
And it’s not just their appetites for noxious weeds that aids in healing the land — especially the still-scorched earth left by the 2018 fire that burned more than 12,500 acres, explained Lani Malmberg, who owns Green Goat LLC with her son, Donny Benz.
“What’s happened is that after the fire, certain weeds have come in that they don’t want there,” she said. “The soil is left uncovered and the weeds have come in. It’s about revegetating and healing that land and stabilizing the soil on the hillside, which we do with 1,000 goats and 4,000 hooves.”
The weight of those hooves — and the goats’ larger bodies, should they choose to lie down during duty — add to stabilization efforts that prevent erosion, she continued.
“There’s a huge value of the hoof action, and especially the movement if we move perpendicular to the gravity and build the soil,” she said. “The movement of the herd, the direction, the speed is all a huge gift that has nothing to do with eating.”
If it sounds like goat herding for land management is a bit of a science, that’s because it is — in fact, Malmberg earned a master’s degree in weed science from Colorado State University after getting a bachelor’s degree in environmental restoration, botany, and biology from Mesa State College in Grand Junction.
“I’m a cattle rancher by background, but I went to college later in life — I was 33,” she recounted.
At that time, she had never even really seen a goat. But during her graduate studies in Fort Collins, Malmberg was a researcher in a CSU project involving sheep for land management.
“I got the idea that a person ought to take the animal that eats whatever it is that’s the problem,” she said. “I learned about noxious chemicals and [was] reading the literature that goats are a perfect complement to cattle and horses because they prefer weeds to grass. They’re completely the opposite in diet and behavior from cattle and horses. That was 26 years ago, and I never quit.”
So in 1997, she bought her first goats and founded Green Goat LLC — and her then 13-year-old son found himself with a business interest.
Since then, their goats have helped manage weeds throughout Colorado to Texas to Maui.
“My son and I actually just got back from Nevada bidding on a very big job with a million-acre ranch and fire mitigation,” she said.
They’re hopeful that the work comes through, too, because the BLM contract in the Roaring Fork Valley is one of the few that was not canceled due to COVID-19 concerns, she noted.
“It was very unexpected,” she said, adding that “our lifestyle is exactly self-isolation.”
But as financial hardships hit nearly every sector, line items on budgets have disappeared — including for contracting goat herders, apparently.
“[There’s] fear because they don’t know what’s going on,” Malmberg said. “As things come crashing down … they don’t know what’s coming. [It’s] mainly fear and the unknown — but I assume that they’ll all have us back again eventually. In the meantime, we’ll go do something else.”
The BLM acquired the 557-acre Sutey Ranch during a 2017 land exchange with billionaire Leslie Wexner, who on Thursday retired from his position as CEO and chairman of L Brands, the umbrella organization to both Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret.
The Sutey Ranch parcel was appealing to the agency because of its recreational potential, and indeed the trail system is a popular one among locals.
“We ask visitors to these areas who have pets to please keep them leashed,” Wallner said. “Working dogs on the property could get distracted and the goats could get frightened by unleashed pets.”