Goats can be a forest’s best friend

By Dave Marston

Goats are particularly good at one thing: Eating. Unlike a horse or cow that leaves noxious weeds behind, goats eat the whole menu of pesky weeds, bushes and small trees. That means goats can be one of the answers to the growing problem of tinder-dry, highly flammable forests.

In Durango, Colorado, former firefighter Jonathan Bartley runs a business called DuranGoats, along with partner Adrian Lacasse, and it’s so popular they’re booked daily. Their herd usually works along the wildland-urban interface of the San Juan National Forest, clearing undergrowth around private houses in heavily wooded, steep areas at the town’s periphery.

Thanks to his work, Bartley has come to a conclusion about newcomers to the West: “When people move here thinking ‘I’d love to live in the woods,’ they’re probably making a big mistake.” If they do choose to live surrounded by trees or next to a forest, though, he has advice.

Because utilities cut off electricity during fires, he suggests buying a generator to keep sprinklers for irrigation running. He also advises homeowners to install a metal roof to repel wind-driven sparks. Always, he adds, have a go-bag ready with your most important stuff if flight becomes necessary. Most of all, he wants homeowners to create flame breaks around their house with gravel while also cutting back trees and shrubs within 30 feet of the house.

That last bit of advice is key. Firefighters triage neighborhoods, he said, picking winners and losers. When they scan neighborhoods quickly, they tend to give defensible homes extra resources while deciding that the brushy, overgrown properties are going to be lost causes.

Bartley knows fire well. He worked for a private company called Oregon Woods as part of a hand crew of 20 based in Eugene, Oregon. There, the Holiday Farm Fire started within a half-mile of his house. From that experience, he learned that our approach to wildfire is backward: “We react, rather than manage landscapes ahead of time. Spending a few million dollars on fire mitigation would have saved hundreds of millions of dollars.”

These days, he said, “I’m still fighting fires — just with goats.”

Bartley is quick to point out that fire itself is beneficial to forests. Even Cal-Fire, the firefighting arm of the state of California, says on its website, “Fire removes low-growing underbrush, cleans the forest floor of debris, opens it up to sunlight and nourishes the soil.”

The problem across the West, Bartley said, is so many unmanaged dense forests full of deadfall and brush — “ladder fuels” — that allow fire to climb into tree canopies. “By the time wildfire gets into the treetops to become crown fires,” Bartley said, “firefighters have evacuated and are miles away.”

Everyone knows that western wildfires are becoming worse. Half of the 10 biggest fires in the United States this century all burned in this region. When wildfires grow massive and super-hot, they destroy forest ecosystems, leaving nearly sterilized bare ground that’s perfect for flammable cheatgrass to invade. That sets up burned areas to burn again, often quickly.

Bartley has big ambitions for his goat herd, which can clear a quarter-acre in a day. DuranGoats charges $400 daily, he said, much less than the cost of a crew of landscapers armed with weed whackers and loppers on hilly, broken terrain. Moreover, the goats’ sharp hooves churn the dirt and fertilize it with poop and pee, setting up a regenerative cycle that improves the soil.

In northwestern Montana, former journalist David Reese has a similar business called Montana Goat. His herd moves daily, and once the animals strip leaves off small trees and gobble up the cheatgrass and knapweed, he said, it’s quick work to chainsaw small trees and dead branches.

Like Bartley, Reese has found he has almost more business than he can handle. He plans to scale his herd to 400 goats, while Bartley aims to build up to 100 goats. Both are angling for bigger contracts from homeowners and also government agencies.

Finding four-legged workers is easy. “A male dairy goat has a life expectancy of a week,” said Bartley. “They’re not plump like meat goats, have no dairy value and often are dispatched at birth.”

Extra income for DuranGoats comes from outdoor weddings. Festooned with wildflowers and bells, goats roam the grounds and are a favorite with all the guests, even pitching in as ring-bearers, or in a pinch, groomsmen. But like any single man at a wedding, they have a wandering eye, which means that flower arrangements can be gobbled up quickly.

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He lives in Durango, Colorado.

Jonathan Bartley and Adrian Lacasse

This column was published in the following newspapers:

10/02/2023 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
10/02/2023 Craig Daily Press Craig co
10/02/2023 Portland Tribune portland or
10/02/2023 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
10/02/2023 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
10/02/2023 Sherwood Gazette Portland OR
10/02/2023 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
10/02/2023 Valley Times News Portland OR
10/02/2023 The Newberg Graphic Newberg OR
10/02/2023 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
10/02/2023 Marinscope community newspapers Marin County CA
10/02/2023 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
10/03/2023 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
10/03/2023 Vail Daily Vail CO
10/04/2023 Wallowa County Chieftain Enterprise OR
10/04/2023 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
10/04/2023 Denver Post Denver CO
10/04/2023 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
10/03/2023 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
10/04/2023 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
10/03/2023 Aspen Times Aspen CO
10/05/2023 Wyoming Tribune Eagle Cheyenne WY
10/04/2023 Taos News Taos NM
10/06/2023 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
10/06/2023 Laramie Boomerang Laramie WY
10/04/2023 Durango Telegraph Durango CO
10/04/2023 Lake Powell Chronicle Page AZ
10/06/2023 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
10/06/2023 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
10/07/2023 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
10/07/2023 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
10/07/2023 Farmington Daily Times Farmington NM
10/06/2023 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
10/07/2023 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
10/07/2023 Las Cruces Bulletin Las cruces NM
10/09/2023 Sierra Vista Herald Sierra Vista AZ
10/09/2023 south dakota searchlight Pierre SD
10/11/2023 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
10/11/2023 Wenatchee World Wenatchee WA
10/12/2023 Methow Valley News Twisp WA
10/12/2023 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
10/15/2023 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
10/15/2023 KVNF Radio Paonia CO
10/17/2023 Del Norte Triplicate Crescent City CA
10/17/2023 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
10/19/2023 Omaha World-Herald Omaha NE
01/04/2024 Tahoe Daily Tribune South Lake Tahoe CA
02/09/2024 Coos Bay World Link Coos Bay OR
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Crista Worthy
6 months ago

I agree that goats are fantastic at eating up noxious weeds and preventing fires. Where I live, in a small unincorporated community outside Boise, in the foothills, we have lots of open space and natural areas. Many decades ago the area was overgrazed, so weeds can be a problem. Two years in a row, a professional brought his goats and set up temporary electric fencing, moving the goats around the area over the course of several weeks. This went splendidly until the dog–a huge guard dog left among the sheep–attacked a small boy and bit him severely. This either happened because of a hole in the fence, or when the goats were being moved; I can’t remember. There were multiple causes: the parents should have kept closer watch on their toddler when the family went out for a walk, the goat owner should have been monitoring the goats better, and the dog should have been watched over as well. The dog was there to prevent a mountain lion or coyotes from attacking the goats at night, when they are unattended, but it apparently felt the toddler was a threat. So, that was the end of my community benefitting from goats. It’s a cautionary tale, and I tell it so that in the future others involved in these programs will be more careful–goats are still an excellent solution.

Goat for it!!! – “Summer is the season of inferior sledding” – Inuit proverb
6 months ago

[…] October 2, 2023Martha Kennedy Leave a comment Goats can be a forest’s best friend […]

Rick Freimuth
6 months ago

Goats and beaver are key to wildfire reduction in the west as well as proper pay for our federal wildland firefighters. Thanks for an informative and fun article.

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