Four-legged weed-eaters

City turns to animals for noxious species control, fire suppression at Bidwell Park

Shepherd Jose Hilario watches over a herd of goats in Bidwell Park with the help of canine guard dogs Fog and Heidi. The goats eat invasive species, an eco-friendly way to cut back on fire danger and improve the health of the park.

Shepherd Jose Hilario watches over a herd of goats in Bidwell Park with the help of canine guard dogs Fog and Heidi. The goats eat invasive species, an eco-friendly way to cut back on fire danger and improve the health of the park.

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

It’s easy to tell that something is afoot in Lower Bidwell Park—the weeds and low-hanging tree leaves on either side of Petersen Memorial Way (just past the parking area off Vallombrosa Avenue) have been obliterated.

On a recent chilly morning, the flock was impossible to miss—more than 500 goats lazily munching the remaining grasses and stray star thistle, occasionally bleating, butting heads and contorting themselves to scratch their rumps with their horns.

Joggers and bikers couldn’t help but stop and take pictures, marvel at the animals and ask John Quinn, general manager of Rancho Cordova-based Capra Environmental Services Corp., a question or two.

“Can you tell us all their names?” one woman asked, in jest.

“Goat 1, Goat 2, Goat 3,” Quinn quipped.

It has been 15 years since the hoofed workers—goats are technically browsers, which like shrubs, shoots and leaves, versus a grazer’s preferred diet of grasses—have made an appearance in Bidwell Park.

The city’s park managers brought them back to control vegetation. Plus, given the Stoney Fire’s close brush with homes along the park’s border this past summer, it’s a strategic fire suppression decision as well.

Targeted browsing and grazing cut down on the grasses and plants that fuel catastrophic fires, like the Tubbs Fire, which destroyed more than 5,600 structures last October, burning more than 36,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties. When working in concert with other land management tools such as prescribed fires and forest thinning, municipalities can reduce the fire danger within their communities.

Goats work so well because they are like living garbage disposals, eating noxious and invasive plants such as poison oak, ivy, star and bull thistle, and even the leafy portions of Himalayan blackberries.

“They’re really effective,” Quinn said. “If you had to take a weed eater [or tractor], it’d take forever to get this done.”

A weed eater

Photo by Ashiah Scharaga

Contrasted with machinery, goats are an eco-friendly way to tackle fire suppression, he added. Plus, their reach is impressive—they’ll stand on their hind legs to snap their maws around foliage as much as 6 feet off the ground.

“Now, if a fire came, it wouldn’t burn much, for one, and there’s no leaves, no fuels to get it up into these trees,” he added. “What happened in Santa Rosa, it could easily happen here in Chico. … Doing this reduces fire risk, helps the environment [and] prevents noxious weeds.”

City Park & Natural Resources Manager Linda Herman said if funding is available, the department would like to implement grazing all around Lower Park, and in portions of Middle Park near Hooker Oak Park, the equestrian arena area and Horseshoe Lake, to control unruly weeds and star thistle. The price tag for the current effort is $7,000 to $8,750 total for 20 to 25 acres, at $350 per acre, and Quinn anticipates the animals will be on-site for another week or two.

During that recent visit to the park to chat with Quinn, passersby commented on the impressive herding skills of black-and-white border collies Romel, Levi and Casey, and the stalwart protectiveness of Fog and Heidi, the goats’ Anatolian shepherd guardians. Their booming barks resonated whenever any canine out for a stroll got too curious.

Of course, their shepherd, 21-year-old Jose Hilario, has kept the dogs in check and also made sure the goats have stayed safe. He is with the herd 24/7, camping out in a nearby trailer at night. Add the electric fence surrounding the animals, and they’re quite well-protected.

While they may not have names, these four-legged workers—mostly Boer and Spanish goats—live a pretty comfortable lifestyle, traveling from pasture to pasture and gorging to their heart’s content until the next job rolls along.

Quinn said they typically work for six to seven years before retiring from old age or illness.

Since forming last year, the business has been in high-demand, Quinn said. The company has 2,500 goats and a small flock of sheep on hand (some are in Chico, too—they nibble on the grasses goats aren’t interested in).

For the most part, the goats are easy to work with, Quinn said. There is one Spanish goat, however, that “seems to want to jump out every time we’re loading [the trailer] and is usually the last one we catch.”

If all goes according to plan, Herman will have the goats return to the park during spring and fall for at least a few more years. The animals haven’t made an appearance since 2003, when domestic dogs slaughtered a couple of them.

There is definitely “a renewed interest in goat [browsing] as a vegetation tool,” Herman added, not only for fire prevention, but because goats will gobble up invasive species, encouraging native species to grow and fertilizing the soil.

“It helps the environment, in general, to have that natural grazing going on,” she said. “It’s a management process we need to do to keep the park healthy.”