By now, almost everyone’s heard of using goats to clear unwanted weeds. It’s popular enough in Northwest precincts to have spawned a friendly lampoon by Pemco insurance:

Yet goats are a lot more than a lifestyle choice in a quirky region. Local and regional governments are, of course, responsible for managing their own properties, such as parks, playgrounds, and schoolyards. Faced with reduced funding but increased responsibilities in a troubled economy, some governments have seized on goats as an organic way to remove noxious weeds without using toxic chemicals. Goats can remove weeds from the toughest spots, such as steep slopes where pulling by hand may be impractical, or river areas where required buffer zones may forbid herbicide applications. Best of all, there’s some evidence that goats are not just effective but also cost-efficient: they don’t just clear weeds, they save money too.

Scientists from the University of Northern British Columbia partnered with their home city government in Prince George to test two organic methods, acetic acid (vinegar) and goats, to control the noxious weed Canada thistle. The two-year study determined that either method succeeded in controlling thistle, and either method is as cost effective as chemical herbicides, while posing fewer concerns over impacts on human and ecosystem health. The study results were published in a scientific journal in 2009, summarized here; and reported on Canadian television.

In both urban and rural settings, Northwest goat success stories abound:

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    • The city of Wilsonville, Oregon hires about 450 goats to clear invasive weeds from city parks and green spaces. Wilsonville sponsors a Goat Appreciation Day each year before the herd leaves, allowing members of the public and their children to pet the goats and learn of their role in land management.
    • In King County, Washington, goats have been hired to clear brush at a Metro bus depot in Bellevue. Meanwhile Seattle Parks and Recreation has employed goats, and Seattle City Light hires goats to remove blackberry brambles and other brush from electrical substations.
    • Boise hired about 600 goats to clear weeds from public lands in the northwest foothills, and the effort was successful enough that the city expects to rent goats in the future.
    • The Blaine County Recreation District in Idaho reached agreement to use about 700 goats as an alternative to herbicides in a three-year pilot project to clear knapweed from public parks along a pedestrian and bicycle path that stretches the length of the Wood River Valley.

    It’s no wonder that so many places are turning to goats. Like most of North America, the Northwest has a real problem with invasive plant species, sometimes called “noxious weeds.”  Such weeds can be transported beyond their native habitats through international commerce, or sometimes are introduced intentionally, as with ornamental plants for garden use. Once these weeds are removed from the wildlife and other natural controls of their native habitats, they may grow unchecked, in the process threatening ecosystems, their new habitats, agriculture and domesticated animals, and at times, even human health. A typical example is English ivy, native to Europe and western Asia but introduced elsewhere as an ornamental.  Oregon and Washington State each designated this species noxious, because it chokes out other plants and can overwhelm trees.   In fact, climate change is likely to make the region’s weed problem worse: warmer summers and winters can make it easier for non-native weeds to gain a foothold and spread.

    The secret to goats’ success is their biology. They are browsers, not grazers, which means they eat brush, leaves, twigs, and other foods before grass. They leave plant stalks, which hold the soil in place, preventing erosion. And while, contrary to folklore, goats do not actually eat tin cans, they are remarkably omnivorous; they’ll munch the paper labels from cans, while thistles and thorns, such as those in blackberry brambles, do not seem to faze them. In addition, goats destroy seeds by grinding them with their molars, while their stomach acids can prevent weed seeds from germinating.

    Goats are likely not a silver bullet to the Northwest’s invasive weed problems, but they are a promising way for land managers to save money, conserve resources, and reduce the use of hazardous toxic chemicals. You might even say that local and regional governments can use goats to “make sustaina-billy legal.”

    John Abbotts is a former Sightline research consultant, who occasionally submits material that Sightline staff turn into blog posts. Inspiration for the title of this post came from the Ashland Daily Tidings, here.