Goats Eat Through Invasives On Eastern Iowa Conservation Land

Aug 6, 2018

A non-profit organization hoping to restore native habitats in eastern Iowa is getting some help from a herd of goats.  Seventeen goats are currently eating their way through 40 acres of invasive plants on the Muddy Creek Preserve in Johnson County. Staffers at the Bur Oak Land Trust hope to ultimately restore the parcel to pre-settlement conditions, but they say they need the animals' help to get it done.

The small team of staffers and land management volunteers at the Bur Oak Land Trust can’t match the hunger of 17 goats. After struggling to clear acres of invasive oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose and honeysuckle, as well as overgrown native plants, the group is letting goats do much of the work for them.

Property Stewardship Specialist Jason Taylor says his human team can't keep up with the seemingly insatiable appetite of the goats.

"If we had a team of four people in here, it would probably take...a solid two weeks for us to go through and clear out the entire area," Taylor said, gesturing to an acre of wooded land rolling down to the creek.

Taylor says penning the goats on the land for four days or so dramatically reduces the need for human labor. He says this practice of "prescribed grazing" is already having a profound impact on the small organization's operations.

“Two hours of work versus a week of work is a huge time savings for us. And we’re a very small non-profit, so we don’t have a lot of staff to come out and work on the property," Taylor said. "That’s why having the goats just takes care of so much of that time for us. It really helps out immensely.”

Having the goats eating their way through the Muddy Creek Preserve, just north of Coralville, is also a benefit for their owner Seth Zimmermann. Zimmermann says it can be a challenge to satisfy the goats' appetites when he isn't sending them out to eat customers' weeds.

"It's great. It's great to have an outlet, to put them somewhere when I don't have someone renting them," Zimmermann said. As a member of the Bur Oak Land Trust's board, Zimmermann sees lending his goats to the organization as a natural solution.

"They need it. They've got all these big properties and there's no way the organization can find enough human bodies to put on the project, so we found an alternative," Zimmermann said.

Ultimately, Taylor hopes to restore the Muddy Creek Preserve to how it would've looked like centuries ago, before settlers stifled wildfires and plowed through native grasses. He estimates tree coverage on the parcel has increased 80 to 90 percent since that time, due to the lack of regular burns and the loss of herbivores like elk.

"We're a very small non-profit, so we don't have a lot of staff to come out and work on the property. That's why having the goats just takes care of so much of that time for us. It really helps out immensely." - Jason Taylor, Bur Oak Land Trust

"There's very nice, open-grown oak tress that are just being strangled out by all the non-native vegetation. As well as native vegetation that is growing here, but probably shouldn't be," Taylor said.

With the help of prescribed grazing and prescribed burning, Taylor hopes to once again see healthy, hundred-year-old oak trees stretching over open meadows of grasses.

“And the goats are helping. The goats are doing the first push-through," Taylor said. "And then we go through and do some mechanical thinning. And then re-applying fire to the landscape is how we’re eventually going to be able to restore what used to be here back in the pre-settlement time period.”

Taylor says the Muddy Creek Preserve may look like a "jungle" now, but he says restoring the oak savanna is worth the effort from humans and goats.

"Everyone talks about the coral reefs and they talk about the rainforests," Taylor said. "Unfortunately there isn't much oak savanna, true old oak savanna left in the world. We're trying to restore it."

Only a fraction of Midwestern oak savanna survived the transformative effects of human settlement. A 1986 study estimated .01 percent of the habitat's historic footprint remains. According to the World Wildlife Fund, it’s one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Seth Zimmermann's last name as Zimmerman. 

The story has also been updated to reflect Jason Taylor's official title of Property Stewardship Specialist.