By MICHAEL ELIZABETH SAKAS, Colorado Public Radio
DENVER (AP) — A group of horse trailers pull up to a trailhead outside Carbondale. The gates open and over 800 goats jump onto the gravel parking lot. The goats head straight for the nearest grassy hill and immediately start nibbling at the ground.
That’s what these goats are there to do – eat, poop and stomp, grind their manure into the ground. The goats are munching on a type of wheatgrass that once fed Sutey Ranch’s cattle, which is overgrown and unpalatable to local elk and deer.
“Our hope is that if we can regrow some of these grasses, improve the soil and make room for other more desirable plants to grow, the fields will be even more valuable to wildlife,” said Hilary Boyd, biologist at wildlife. with the United States Bureau of Land Management.
This is one of the first projects goat farmer Lani Malmberg worked on with the BLM. She calls her border collie, Rosco, to move the goats where she needs them. Malmberg and his intern then unroll a portable electric fence around the herd, which quietly gnaws at the ground.
Malmberg stays in an RV at the construction site with his goats. She grew up raising cattle and went to graduate school at Colorado State University to study weed management. There she learned that goats are good at eating weeds and cleaning up harmful plants. She bought a herd of cashmere goats in 1996 to start her business managing private and public lands without using pesticides or heavy machinery.
Malmberg goats travel across the country to work on different land management projects. Animals remove noxious weeds and help control erosion along rivers. The goats also eat brush that could fuel large forest fires, a job Malmberg and his herd are increasingly committed to.
Climate change is leading to hotter, drier conditions in the West and larger and more frequent wildfires. When Malmberg and the goats are finished at Sutey’s ranch, she’ll pack them up and move them to another BLM project where they’ll clear oak brush near an area burned by the Grizzly Creek fire last year.
Malmberg goats were grazing there when the fire broke out. She said it was terrifying – she, her son and his wife, and more than 1,000 goats raced down the mountain away from the flames.
“The bears and the cougars were running with us, we were all running together,” Malmberg said.
Malmberg is happy to finally work with federal land managers, who control nearly half of the land in the western states. She said the BLM should try new ways to care for public lands with a warming and drying climate.
Boyd, the BLM wildlife biologist, wants to use the goats for another project. The agency cleared wildfire fuel from an area 15 years ago, but now those plants are starting to regrow. It may not be possible to clear this land with a controlled fire due to dry conditions and nearby private homes and land.
“We think getting the goats to come in and eat the brush might be the best way to keep the treatment going,” Boyd said.
The goats will return to Sutey Ranch next year, and possibly for the next decade, to complete restoration work on the old pastures. Boyd says she is happy to work with the goats, even if the work takes a little longer.
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