MONTE WHALEY The Denver Post Jun 11, 2006
DENVER – Don’t turn your back on those herds of sheep and goats now eating their way through more and more Western cities, experts say.
If left to their own devices, the animals that communities are turning to for weed management can strip some areas clean of all plants, good and bad.
The problem isn’t really with the sheep or goats, but the people who oversee them.
“You sure as heck can’t turn a flock onto a pasture and just let them go,” said George Beck, a Colorado State University weed science professor. “That’s just inviting disaster.”
One sheep producer looking for a contract with Boulder said his approach to weed management was simple. “He said, ‘We’re going to clean everything off,”‘ said Beck, who oversaw the hiring process. He turned the producer down.
A neighborhood group in the Poudre Canyon wasn’t so lucky. It hired a sheep producer to clean up noxious weeds, and the herd turned the parcel into a lunar landscape, Beck said.
“It looked horrible,” Beck said. “It looked like bare ground.”
Other hitches have emerged since Front Range cities started using sheep and goats on noxious weeds as opposed to pesticides and mowing, officials say.
Some communities cannot afford sheep and goat producers. Many charge from $1 to $4 a day per animal for flocks that number up to 200.
“It’s rather expensive – we don’t have the budget for it,” said Tim D’amato, Boulder County weed manager.
Meanwhile, many producers say bringing their livestock so close to suburban enclaves would leave their animals open to attacks from domestic dogs, said Bonnie Kline, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association.
But goats and sheep remain popular because they consume prickly weeds in open spaces and parks where people do not want to run across a cloud of pesticides, say, officials.
The animals are small and sure-footed and can more easily maneuver among rocks and crevices where mowers and humans can’t get, weed managers say.
Communities also gain a valuable public-relations tool with four-legged summer employees.
“Now even the homeless people living under the bridges see my goats and say, ‘Hey, they are taking care of the weeds,” said Lani Lamming, whose 1,100 goats are currently chomping away in downtown Cheyenne.
Runners, bicyclists, and golfers in Vail are big fans of the 100 or so sheep that graze every spring and summer in the town’s open spaces, said Town Manager Stan Zemler.
“People like them,” he said. “Most importantly, we are not using any toxins.”
Lamming, who got her master’s degree in weed science from CSU, started marketing goats as weed exterminators in 1997. Today, she and her goats are under contract in 12 states.
The animals are effective as long-term solutions to noxious weeds if they are managed correctly, weed experts say.
“Good grazing for weeds is a trick and an art, and it doesn’t mean it’s the answer for every species of plant and every situation,” said CSU’s Beck.
Many say Denver helped pioneer such use of sheep and goats when the city began experimenting with them in 1997. The city learned to use goats at different times of the year in limited settings for the best results, said Gayle Weinstein, city naturalist.
“They are really great in starting a restoration of an area,” Weinstein said. “But nothing’s a panacea.”
Fort Collins is the latest Colorado city to use sheep to stave off an expansion of invasive weeds. About 200 sheep will graze on several open-space parcels this summer free of charge.
“On a large scale, sheep are cost-effective and gentler on the land than traditional mechanical and chemical weed treatments,” said Rick Bachand, senior environmental planner with the city’s Natural Areas Program.
The sheep come courtesy of Severance sheep producer John Bartmann, who says his sheep’s chewing will weaken the more stubborn noxious plants and make it easier for herbicides to finish the weed killing.
“In the long term, this is a good solution to the weed problem,” Bartmann said. “All these weeds didn’t happen overnight, and these sheep are glad to come back year after year to eat.”