Return of the weed-eaters
Considering Vail’s disastrous debut with a herd of 500 Kashmir goats last summer, the above statement may run the risk of sounding overly optimistic. But as perhaps the only biologically-sound alternative to toxins in the fight against noxious weeds, the goats’ weed-eating potential is great enough to give the hungry critters another chance.
“It’s too early to get a good read on what the drought is doing to the native grasses we threw on the places the goats worked on,” says Vail’s Public Works, Streets and Maintenance Manager Larry Pardee. “But they definitely gnawed everything in their way to the ground. They aren’t kidding when they say goats eat anything. We had to try to get them around things couple of times. They’ll eat any plant, shrub, tree – you name it, they eat it.”
Goats have become increasingly popular in the West as a non-toxic weapon against annual and perennial noxious weeds.
Following the example of other municipalities and neighboring counties, Vail decided last year to hire Ewe4ric, an Alpine, Wyoming-based grazing operation, to fight Russian thistle and other common noxious weeds with something less toxic than herbicides and less labor-intensive than manual weed-plucking.
Last year, for $5,000 – or a dollar a day per goat – Lani Lamming, the herd’s guardian, agreed to stop in Vail for 10 days in late-July – a commitment that was later extended by seven days due to extenuating circumstances.
Upon the herd’s arrival in East Vail, however, “everything that could go wrong went wrong,” Pardee remembers.
“It was like the “Twighlight Zone,'” he says. “The beginning was bad and the end was bad, but the middle 15 days were pretty good.”
Just hours after the goats had been unloaded south of Interstate 70, an unidentified dog, a Husky, spooked the herd, then caused the death of a $2,500 boarder collie. While containing the herd, the collie ran onto the South Frontage Road and was hit and killed by a vehicle. The driver then left the scene and was never apprehended.
The Husky provoking the stampede was never caught, either. But at least no goats were killed or injured in the first incident.
The death toll, however, came to include goats 16 days later after the town agreed to an additional week of grazing and an additional $3,500 in compensation for the lost dog. A loose Husky jumped a 5-foot fence, killing two goats and injuring two more before bystanders, armed with an umbrella and a golf club, could contain the dog in a car.
The offending Husky was sentenced to life-on-parole by Vail Municipal Judge Buck Allen with the condition that he be put to sleep if he was caught on the the loose again anywhere in Eagle County.
State steps in
In August, to make Vail’s lackluster record with weed-eating goats worse, the Colorado Division of Wildlife, or CDOW, weighed in with a complaint.
According to a letter sent to the town by Bill Andree, CDOW’s regional wildlife manager, as many as nine goats at least temporarily intermingled with bighorn sheep herds roaming on public lands.
All attempts to persuade Lamming to return and capture the goats went unanswered, Andree wrote, and despite the capture of eight goats by the town and the wildlife agency later in the fall, at least one goat is believed to still be on the loose, posing a threat to wildlife as a possible carrier of disease as well as a competitor for forage.
“The domestic goats were mixing with a native herd of bighorn sheep on U.S. Forest Service land and within the Eagle Nest Wilderness area,” Andree wrote, adding that “with the current concerns of whirling disease in fish and chronic wasting disease in big game, the CDOW is not willing to take any chances on possible vectors for additional disease problems.”
Andree is currently out in the field and not available for comment.
Goat lovers all
Aside from a few loose dogs, Vail welcomed the horned weed-eaters with open arms, not open jaws. Even the accompanying stink failed to crinkle the noses of the town’s notoriously-fickle residents, says Vail Town Assistant Manager Pam Brandmeyer.
“All the comments I got were positive,” she says. “People thought it was a very creative and innovative way to deal with the problem of noxious weeds. We did not receive any complaints about the odor.”
Learning from last year’s lessons, Pardee says there will be changes to this year’s plan of goat-attack once the the team arrives in late July.
In response to CDOW’s complaint, Pardee says, the goats only will be deployed on the south side of I-70 with hopes the Frontage Road and Gore Creek will contain the herd “with natural barriers” to areas along the Vail Recreation Path from East Vail all the way to Dowd Junction, Pardee says. Additionally, the town will withhold final payment – this year, the contract calls for 10 days for $5,000 – until all goats deployed have been accounted for.
As for the dog attacks, Pardee turns part preachy part philosophical.
“I think we’ll be better prepared this time,” he says. “We’ve been through it once and we better be better prepared.”
Pardee promises temporary signs will alert Vailites the goats are moving along the recreation path east to west and back east. When goats are grazing in the area – their distinctive smell should serve as a tip-off, in addition to the signs – dogs should be kept contained in cars or homes.
Leashes and fences, Pardee says aren’t good enough.
“People are welcome to come and watch the goats working, but please leave the dogs at home for the day and walk them somewhere else,” he says, adding that despite the potential headaches he believes another try is worth the pain.
“There are lots of things that aren’t always fun, but there are good reasons to do it,” he says. “There has been a real feeling coming from the community that generally everybody understands that this is difficult. But to be fair we should try it for at least a couple of years and compare it against our other means of eradication.”
If, against all hope, pet owners ignore the rules again, herbicides may be back in the game, Pardee says.
“Last year we got hit with a few curve balls. This year we have a chance to do this better, otherwise I doubt we’ll try again,” he says.
Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 602 or at firstname.lastname@example.org