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New weapon to fight invasive plants in Michigan? Goats

Ottawa County has a new weapon in the fight against invasive plants. This week, I got a chance to check out the weapon in action at Burr Oak Landing, a 260-acre natural park about 20 miles west of Grand Rapids.

“These are what we call our ‘prescribed browsers,’ aka, goats,” said Melanie Manion, Natural Resources Management Supervisor for Ottawa County. As part of her job, Manion manages almost 7,000 acres of natural parkland.

“The idea behind this project came from this right here,” Manion says, pointing to a thick green vine twisted on itself on the forest floor.

“This is oriental bittersweet. It is a ground cover that can grow two to three feet on top of itself. It makes this impenetrable mess and then it climbs the trees and chokes the trees out and kills them,” she said.

Manion says the vine has been in Ottawa County for at least a couple of decades.

"Young trees it just pulls right down and it just smothers everything in its path."

Luckily, Manion’s eight goats love the invasive plant. The heard is her new weapon to fight invasive plants.

They’re fenced off in one area of the park, eating day and night; as much as their little goat tummies desire. After a few more weeks, Manion says they’ll pack up the portable electric fence and move the goats, so they can destroy invasive plants in the next section of forest.

“Can you kind of see the difference between where they’ve been working and the jungle that it used to look like?” she asks.

Big time.

Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Vines of oriental bittersweet wrap around this tree, causing major damage.

Not only do the goats do a great job clearing unwanted, invasive plants, they save Ottawa County money. This way, the county doesn’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to manually clear the plants or dump lots of herbicide that would “kill everything in its wake” because oriental bittersweet is covering many of the trees.

Using goats to mow down hard-to-reach, persistent, or poisonous invasive plants isn’t a new idea. Manion says she heard of it at a conference.

“Being in Ottawa County, we have very deep agricultural roots,” Manion said. “I knew a lot of people who had pet goats but had a hard time feeding them because goats eat a lot. And so I thought this would be a great win-win. We could provide them free food and they would get rid of our invasive species and I don’t have to pay for it.”

Donations helped pay for the goats. Manion says students and volunteers care for and check on the goats twice a day. At the end of the summer, the goats will be auctioned off, recuperating the cost of buying them. 

Manion hopes the students helping from Ottawa County’s Intermediate School District will continue the pilot program once it’s over at the end of next summer. Or, she'd love it if a someone took it up as a start-up business.

Ottawa County isn’t the only local government that’s recently decided to employ goats to control invasive plant.  

Farmington Hills just got a goat, appropriately named “Pilot,” tethered near a detention basin at city hall during the day to eat invasive plants.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Radio’s Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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