LETHBRIDGE - When you think of goats, perhaps your first thought isn't how effective they can be in clearing problem vegetation around public areas.
But that's exactly what made them enticing for the City of Lethbridge.
They will be testing the use of goats this fall to manage vegetation around paths in Cottonwood Park that can't be mechanically mowed.
This is a pilot project to determine if an ongoing program in the river valley is feasible next year.
The 200 goats brought in are managed by herder Robert Finck and dogs that are trained to move and protect the goats from predators.
Finck says he had the idea to use the goats for custom grazing, and they were on a cattle ranch and just decided they wanted to go on their own.
"We came to the City and talked to them about the ideas of what we could do and turns out they were looking for ideas about how they could do it also, so it went pretty fast. Everybody was excited to look at new ways of having proper management, to graze for weeds and different habitats."
Municipalities like the City of Calgary have successfully used goats to control invasive weeds and manage vegetation in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.
One of the reasons Finck decided to go down this path had to do with seeing the success of goats in Calgary and Edmonton.
"Saw a business plan that there wasn't a lot of competition, and I had goats in the past down in the United States. We just thought it was a way to come in and start a new business. I have a large range background and so it was a way that I could hit the habitat and do the work I wanted to do," Finck said.
A full-time herder is going to stay in Lethbridge for the project, while Finck is back and forth because he still has some goats at home.
Finck is originally from Montana, but the company Creekside Goats is out of Magrath and that's where all the goats are from.
Using this approach to manage the natural landscape in local parks came from the Lethbridge River Valley Parks Master Plan, which was approved in 2017, and Finck explained what a day looked like on Tuesday, Oct. 23.
"We brought goats in here today at 8:30 a.m. and put up the electric fences because we wanted to clear the trail mostly," he continued. "Everyday we'll leapfrog down and we're going to clear probably 60 feet wide from the trail, so when we hit the bottom then we will graze with dogs and walk and cover all the brush."
There are 100 acres in the area, and Finck says they'll try to see how much they can get around.
"We have a Border Collie, we'll walk along with them either on a horse or walking while they're grazing. I can turn them whatever direction, I can make them go to brushier areas but it's the Border Collies that do the work."
Although the herd dogs are friendly toward people, residents are reminded to keep dogs out of the area and not to pet the herd dogs while they are working.
The goat program is expected to wrap up in three weeks depending on the weather, according to Finck.
"We won't cover the 100 acres but with winter coming and budgets, that's what we've kind of planned for this year. I think the biggest part was a pilot study to see how it all worked, we haven't done a lot of it and the city hasn't done a lot of it. We can come together and make sure we're all on the same page."
The value of goats in this kind of activity is that they seem to eat everything that nothing else wants.
"The biggest plus is any weed seeds, they're the only animal that does not pass the seeds through the rumen, so every other animal will eat and spread seeds but in the goats it kills them," Finck added.
"They'll eat brush, twigs, but they like the forge more. They'll go for leafy spurge and the weeds way before the grass, you kind of have to make them eat the grass."
Finck says the goats eat the target species they're after, which would otherwise be sprayed, and that's what they enjoy.
"I think leafy spurge is a real problem in Lethbridge and Cardston County. It's probably the worst, and spotted nap weed is another really bad one. It's hard to spray em and nothing eats it, but the goats love it."
And despite eating all of what Finck mentioned, it has no adverse effects on the goats due to the strengths of their stomachs.
Jackie Cardinal, Parks Natural Resource Coordinator with the City of Lethbridge, says she was excited when Finck approached them because it was an idea they had been thinking about for a couple of years now.
"It kind of landed in our laps and lined up perfectly. It's important because we've never physically managed our River Valley. We've just kind of left it alone or we've done developments in other parts, but we haven't managed the vegetation apart from maybe mowing some pathway sides.
"This is kind of bringing it back to basics where this land evolved from. It evolved with herds of buffalo and other things moving through and grazing it, but it hasn't been grazed for a lot of decades so it's something that it needs," Cardinal said.
The main thing the City is looking at is knocking back and getting a handle on invasive weeds.
"Our River Valley is tricky because it's steep, there's a lot of areas that you can't get too. Those disturbed areas are where the weeds tend to be. These goats are nimble, and they can get down to them, they like them, and it's a win-win for us because it's environmentally friendly," Cardinal explained.
"The natural ecology evolved one way, and when humans came in we brought in several different species of plants and animals that carry all sorts of different hosts with them. If we can take it back as much as possible, get rid of some of the stuff that doesn't belong here and is choking out the natural vegetation, then the whole eco-system will be a lot healthier," Cardinal said.
If the pilot is successful, goats may become a more common tool used to manage invasive weeds in the river valley next year.