Fighting Non-native/Exotic Plant Populations with Goats
Conservation lands program and Exotic species removal
The Indian River County Conservation Lands program began in the 90's with an effort to preserve and protect environmentally sensitive lands in Indian River County. Supported by voters, two bond referendums were introduced for a total of $75 million dollars to acquire habitats that were quickly disappearing from development pressures. These funds were leveraged with state grants to purchase more than 11,500 acres throughout the County, and specifically in the most ecologically sensitive areas where protection would be critical to long-term preservation of habitats and the species that depend on those habitats. Over 2,500 acres are managed directly by the division.
"One of the most important aspects of land management is removing exotic species and restoring the lands to native, healthy habitats," commented Beth Powell, the Parks and Conservation Resources Assistant Director. "These areas are crucial to wildlife and native species that call these areas their home. Mechanical and herbicide treatment of exotics are the most effective tools in our toolbox, but we are looking at other ways to help mother-nature get a hand up in the restoration process."
Goat Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program
The Indian River County Parks & Conservation Resources Division is deploying two new "secret" agents in the fight against non-native/exotic plant populations on two conservation areas that were historically utilized as citrus groves. With an increasing focus on reducing herbicide use where possible, the Parks and Conservation Division is piloting a new force against exotics, albeit through an ages' long technique…goats! An additional force that will join this pilot project will be the Brazilian peppertree thrips (Pseudophilotrhips ichini), an insect native to Brazil. This new force is being released in Florida after more than 25 years of research and development, and is being introduced through grant funding provided by the Florida Cattleman's Association. Together, the healthy, furry goats and the small, winged insects, are hoped to give mother-nature (and the Conservation staff), the hand needed to turn fallow grove sites into healthy, thriving ecosystems.
Pilot projects within Indian River County
Two separate sites were chosen for the pilot project. The first area had a deployment of goats working in tandem with mechanical work completed in August 2019. The goat deployment on the second site is funded in part by a Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation (FWC) Fund grant to improve habitat for the State Threatened Gopher Tortoise. This site was also utilized historically for citrus production. "These sites are some of the hardest to manage because the soil structure was altered through the production of citrus. Much of the native seed bank was depleted throughout the years due to maintenance of the groves, so invasive species like Brazilian pepper, cogongrass, wedelia, Guinea grass, and others outcompete what little native seed bank might remain or find its way to the site," said Wendy Swindell, the County's Conservation Lands Project Specialist.
The goal of the two pilot projects is to determine whether or not the goats can help manage the invasive species until the native species can take hold. By utilizing the goats and bio-control together, the hope is that herbicide use can be reduced and used only as needed to fully restore the ecosystem. Installation of commercial grown native plants may be needed to augment the natural restoration process. Conservation staff are working with a local goat herder, the University of Florida researchers, local IFAS Agriculture Extension Agents, and FWC to conduct the pilot projects. "It will take some time to determine whether or not the goat deployment is assisting with the restoration process and how cost effective it is," stated Powell. "We have to look at this over a period of time, watch the native species recruitment and evaluate success and failure. We will be tracking progress through the establishment of monitoring stations throughout the duration of the project to gauge success."
Other areas of the country, especially those in the west, are already utilizing goats successfully for vegetation management and wildfire prevention. Since the early 1990s goats have been successfully utilized in the south-east mountain region to control kudzu, which can grow up to one foot per day. A combination of eating and trampling the vegetation helps to prevent seeding and vigor of non-native plants. "The question is can the native species thrive with goats? That question can only be answered with time," stated Powell. Once the goats have been on site for a period of time, the County anticipates providing some educational programming where visitors can come out and meet the herds. "The goats are very friendly and love people, so much so that keeping them in their fenced area has been a challenge. So far that problem has been resolved." Swindell said. Fencing the goats provides them a safe place to work and keeps predators away. The site with the female goats will have a goat guardian dog who is responsible for protecting the mommas and the baby goats who will be born there.
These are no ordinary goats
Steven Slatem, owner of Invasive Plant Eradicators, takes his goat herding responsibility seriously. It has been his lifelong dream to herd goats professionally. "Our goats are specially bred, trained and conditioned to work in the landscaping and natural foraging goats industry. We do not provide meat nor dairy goats. We provide and manage only long-term-life-time-oriented career landscaping and natural foraging goats. We are dedicated to our goats living the longest, healthiest and happiest lives possible in addition to being maximally beneficial contributors to society." You can see this when you meet Steven and his herds. Steven takes pride in the health of his goats and ensures that they have time to prance, play and forage. You will often see him brushing and talking to his herd while working alongside of them. While the goats do most of the chomping, Steven assists them in getting to their favorite Brazilian peppertree branches that are beyond their reach by cutting and stacking them for easy snacking.
For more information on these innovative projects, please go to or www.invasiveplanteradicators.com. For more information about the Brazilian pepper thrips, please go to http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/BENEFICIAL/Pseudophilothrips_ichini.html. Find up to date information and follow the progress on this and all conservation lands projects on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ircConservation.