A new hope: Goats join the fight against invasive species in Benzie County

Dandy stares out at the happenings outside of her paddock. (Robert Myers/Pioneer News Network)

Dandy stares out at the happenings outside of her paddock. (Robert Myers/Pioneer News Network)

BENZIE COUNTY — Behind the summer scenes of ice cream cones, sandy beaches and fun times outdoors, there is a battle raging in Benzie County.

Over the years, many invasive species have gained a strong foothold in the area, while the efforts of the Benzie Conservation District, Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy and Northwest Michigan Invasive Species Network and countless other organizations and individuals have fought to restrain them and protect native species and the natural beauty that has made Benzie County a destination location for so many.

Recently, a new hope has joined the fight. The Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy (GTRLC) is using a small herd of seven goats to combat invasive species on some of the most heavily besieged locations on their properties.

This summer marks the second year of the program. During the winter, the goats are housed at Misty Acres, which is an operating farm donated to the GTRLC by Naomi Borwell. For the summer months, Sam Griffin and Jon Throop of the GTRLC are sending the goats out into the field, where, through their grazing, they can clear out where invasives have made GTRLC properties impassible.

“Goats are definitely bringing a new hope for fighting invasives,” Griffin said. “I just had the field crew for GTRLC that does a lot of hands on invasive work. The crew leader was amazed that you could walk through here. That’s not a normal thing in an autumn olive stand.”

The goats can clean out about 1/4 acre per week of dense vegetation. They will rotate goats back over certain areas during the course of the summer to keep them under control.

“Right now, the areas we’re focusing on with the goats are so bad and so dense that we’re just going to continue to move the goats through them. Once areas start growing back, we are just going to put them back in there and let them eat it down,” said Griffin.

The goats are off to a strong start this spring. They are out in field sooner than last year, and they are also much improved at their job.

Strange as it may sound, the goats struggled at first. Prior to being owned by the GTRLC at Misty Acres, they were dairy goats with limited experience browsing and foraging for their food.

“It took them a little bit to get the concept, but now, they go right at it,” Griffin said. “Last year, if you were here the first few weeks they would just look at you on the other side of the fence and whine. They’ve calmed down quite a bit and understand that this is good food.”

There are a few species that they need to avoid having in the enclosure, but for the most part, the goats can and should eat just about anything they find.

“This is their natural diet. Goats aren’t really designed to eat hay all of the time. They are browsers. It’s amazing.

“They have been out here for a week, and they are in great condition. They act even more like goats, being out here on this diet,” Griffin said. “It’s really good for them … They are doing awesome work for us, and they are enjoying every minute of it. It’s how goats should live, I think.”

The GTRLC is focusing on two properties with their goat program this year. Later in the summer, the goats will be moved to Trapp Farm in Beulah, but for now, they are combating invasives at a disjunct parcel of the Arcadia Dunes preserve near Upper Herring Lake.

The goats are working to clear out a former homestead that has become overrun with invasives such as autumn olive, barberry and Oriental bittersweet, as well as honeysuckle and garlic mustard. It isn’t just about clearing out the woodland though. Nearby is a very lush marsh, and the GTRLC is determined to keep the invasives from taking it over.

“The main reason they bought the parcel is to protect that sensitive habitat,” Griffin said. “Do I think we can totally eradicate invasives 100 percent? Probably not, but I definitely think we should focus on areas where we can make a difference. The goats fighting them here is going to keep the invasives from moving into that sensitive marsh, so it’s going to help protect those orchids and lady slippers down there.”

One of the advantages of goats cleaning out the invasive species is that goats are ruminants.

This means that any seeds from the plants are unlikely to survive their digestive systems and come out in their droppings.

While many plants will start to come back once the goats move on, the goats can prove lethal for some. By completely girdling the bark of autumn olive plants, goats can ultimately kill them, and even if they don’t completely kill the plants, the goats can still have a big impact.

“We haven’t had our goats long enough to see these results, but there is a herd that works down in Otsego Conservation District, and they have a riverside that is overrun with barberry, autumn olive and poison ivy. They’ve had their herd for about three years, and after the third year, they’ve seen natives start to come back and replace the poison ivy,” Griffin said. “Essentially the idea is having the goats eating all this vegetation and giving openings for native vegetation to move in and give the natives a fighting chance.”

While the idea of calling on goats to combat invasive species is relatively new to the Midwest, Griffin said the practice has been used for a number of years in the Western states.

To help care for the goats, Griffin and Throop have recruited about a dozen volunteers.

These volunteers will check on the goats daily to ensure that they are safe, healthy and present and to keep their water trough filled. Volunteers can also help with setting up and taking down fence when moving goats to a new location.

“The volunteers have been great. Everyone is super excited to help out,” Griffin said. “I don’t know about the other people, but I find it pretty therapeutic to watch them graze.”

While they are excited about the number of local volunteers who have stepped up, more are always welcome. For more information about how you can help out, contact Griffin at sgriffin@gtrlc.org or Throop at jthroop@gtrlc.org.

Even if you don’t have time to volunteer to help with the goats or other efforts to combat invasive species in the area, Griffin said there are still things individuals can do to help combat invasive species.

“If you’re visiting a preserve, definitely brush off your shoes before and after a hike, because that’s a common way to spread invasive seeds, especially garlic mustard,” she said. “Really the best thing you can do is just educate yourself on what invasives are out there. A lot of times, you might have them in your backyard and not even know. If everyone just took care of their own property, it would make a huge difference.”

If anyone comes across the goats while they are on the job of fighting invasives on GTRLC properties, it should be noted that the fence surrounding the goats is electrified, and it is best that they not be disturbed.

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