By Joe Wilkinson, Iowa DNR
No doubt about it; 60 grazing goats make a huge dent in an overgrown creek corridor. Two weeks after being turned loose in Ensign Hollow state wildlife area, they have chewed their way through over three acres of giant ragweed, stinging nettles, wild parsnip, poison ivy and just about anything else a land manager does NOT want to see.
It’s opening the eyes of public and private landowners.
“How could a landowner NOT like this? It has too many positives!” queried Eric Boehm, who owns land near Bear Creek, a Clayton County trout stream. Boehm and other landowners, USDA workers and DNR biologists recently checked the progress of the goat experiment.
The results are impressive. On one side of a temporary electric fence, nettles, ragweed and other thick vegetation stood head-high. On the goats’ side, it looked like heavily grazed farm timber. Larger trees had not been on the menu, and much of the grass had been ignored. In between, the undesirable woody vegetation—willow shoots, box elder, buckthorn—was pretty well chewed on…and just stems remained of broadleaf stands; particularly nettles and ragweed.
“You really don’t want to walk through all that stuff,” said DNR fisheries supervisor Mike Steuck; who led the informal tour. “We are trying to open up this area, so folks who want to fish, hunt, trap, bird watch or hike can get through more effectively.”
The area is best known among trout anglers. Rolling through with 60 degree water on this 85 degree summer afternoon, Hewitt Creek is a catch and release, artificial lure only stream. It’s a little out of the way, but that isolation—and 18-inch trout which show up on stream surveys—make it attractive to dedicated anglers. IF they can get to it.
Pine Hill Farms owns the goats, two guard donkeys and the electric fence that keeps them inside. The agreement includes a ‘second helping’ later this season, to keep the vegetation knocked back.
The DNR is paying $2,000 for the trial project. Steuck says that compares pretty well to the cost of bringing in equipment and a crew for a few days.
The goats were moved across the stream after a week or so, to chomp their way through the other side of the seven-acre wildlife area. They watched the tour quietly from a wooded area. Occasionally one would walk out—with a mouthful of green—to look things over.
Though still early, the Ensign Hollow experiment suggests a lot of options.
“This could be another tool in our tool box; to keep areas in prairie, versus having succession go to woody vegetation and trees that we cannot actively manage without a lot of manpower,” offers Steuck. “We might use them in areas with hard access; steep banks, rocky shorelines. Goats are sure-footed and can climb up and down that stuff. People can’t.”
Several goat-for-hire companies have arisen across Wisconsin and Iowa. The recurring question Tuesday was, "How much will it cost, with more goats available?"
For now, Hewitt Creek--an area purchased and maintained with fishing and hunting dollars--is open for business again.