Teton County Weed and Pest experiments with ways to reduce the use of herbicides.
by Richard Abendroth | Jackson Hole News | August 5, 1998
Teton County has new allies in the fight against noxious weeds – 86 goats.
The goat power, provided by the Fort Collins, Colo., business, Ewe-4-ic Ecological Services Inc., is currently trained on a 36-acre property owned by the Jackson Hole Land Trust off South Park Road.
“We’re using old science in a new way,” said Fred Lamming, Teton County Weed and Pest district supervisor.
The weed and pest district and private landowners spend huge amounts of money on herbicides to control noxious plants. In some instances chemistry has worked very well, but those chemicals have a host of problems, too. Some are downright nasty, toxic to everything that comes in contact with it. And herbicide sprayed to control one type of noxious weed can hit and kill other friendly plants when not applied carefully. In wet areas, like the Land Trust property being studied, the last thing anyone wants is toxins in the ground water.
“What we’re trying to do is promote integrated pest management, or IPM,” Lamming said.
“Eventually we’ll integrate [the goats] with herbicides for total control,” said Reggie Benz of Ewe-4-ic, who raises a couple thousand goats with his mother, Lani, and has used them for weed abatement with great success in the Fort Collins area.
Noxious weeds, Lamming explained, are non-native species that tend to take over property, with no natural controls and no qualms about squeezing out native plants. Usually they are imported by human travelers, who introduce them to solve a problem -as a ground cover or to stabilize loose soil, for example. They may come into the country by accident, as when people track seeds in on their clothing or bring it mixed in their hay. Teton County faces monumental weed problems, which threaten native plants on private properties, the National Elk Refuge and in Grand Teton National Park.
Some weed problems have been exacerbated by the removal of livestock, which eat a lot of “bad” plants and also create a cozy bed for “good” seeds with their hooves. While sheep, horses and cows tend to select grass as their vegetable matter of choice, goats browse shrubby plants, including weeds.
The good work of the goats is evident on the Land Trust property. After traveling about 10 hours by truck from Colorado, the hungry animals were fenced into a half- acre area along an irrigation ditch where Canada thistle had been growing rampant.
The root of the problem
Canada thistle, Lamming explained, reproduces by root; chopping down a stalk just encourages the root to send up seven new stalks. The goats, however, nibble the plant away slowly, stripping off a leaf, then biting a bud.
“Over time, they starve out the plant system,” he said, without activating the thistle’s alarms that tell the roots to send up more stems.
All along the ditch, bare thistle stalks poke up through grasses.
Some of the grasses were chowed, too, however, because Lamming and Ewe-4-ic underestimated the appetite of 86 road-weary goats. The secret, Lamming said, is managing the animals, moving them from pasture to pasture at just the right time. Another half-acre plot right next door showed how they leave grasses intact while making quick work of the noxious thistles.
Lamming and Ewe-4-ic hope to feed many other weed species to the goats, too. Dalmatian toad flax, originally planted in Yellowstone gardens to brighten them up, are threatening to take over some parts of the area. Because the flower has a waxy substance coating it, most animals avoid it; goats, however, eat it like candy, Lamming said.
Another plant pest is oxeye daisy, which emits an odor that’s unpleasant to humans and animals. Lamming noted the plant is a particular nuisance in West Bank hayfields. He can’t be sure, but Lamming hopes the goats won’t mind the smell. He also plans to use the goats in coordination with ranchers Mike Taylor and Bill Cawley.
A primary goal of the experiment is to remove at least some toxic herbicides from the county’s weed abatement equation.
Lamming and Benz acknowledge that weed control demands some chemical treatment, but goats can help cut back on the amount needed, while staying fat and happy.
The full effects of controlling weeds with goats won’t be known for a few years, Lamming said, after he and Ewe-4-ic perform careful, scientific studies including vegetation analysis of properties treated with goats.
But, besides weed removal, a number of benefits are pretty easy to predict. Goats fertilize land they browse and their hoof actions affect soils in a way grass seeds prefer.
Ewe-4-ic has also employed many folks on welfare and youths without families or much direction in life. Amanda Christensen, also of Ewe-4-ic, described one boy who bonded with one of Ewe-4-ic’s herders, learning about outdoor life, goat keeping, how to saddle a horse, how to make pancakes over an outdoor fire.
And the goats love it, too. While eating, they build up a good coat which can be used for yarn, and they make milk for goat cheese and gain weight.
Mark Berry, stewardship director for the Jackson Hole Land Trust, said that from his point of view, the experiment is working. “Weed control is about ecological health, but it’s also about being a good neighbor,” he said. “We thought it would be irresponsible to ignore these weeds.”
Lamming, all fired up about goat-managed weed control, talked it up with Berry and the idea to try it out on a Land Trust property seemed natural.
“If it works here, it will work on other properties,” Berry said.
While chemicals tend to be a band-aid, the goat approach can be a long-term one. “We’re trying to create a situation where weed-infested land can heal itself, hopefully with a fraction of the chemistry,” Berry said.
“And we’re doing a little science along the way,” said Lamming. “The data we get back will be really interesting.”
The goats seem to have signed on for the long-run, too.