Minnetonka is Testing Out an Eco-friendly Program to Improve Parklands’Habitat Restoration

As the coming months put a hush over Minnetonka’s parkland plant life, the city is considering whether to rehire 22, ahem, staff members, who were charged this past summer with eliminating pesky garlic mustard, stubborn buckthorn and other invasive plants from Purgatory and Civic Center parks.

“We have to evaluate the cost of the program versus using contractors and volunteers,” says Jo Colleran, natural resources manager for the city of Minnetonka. Those costs included providing food and water, and paying the rental fee for these helpers. So who were they? Goats—some of the least persnickety eaters of the animal kingdom and increasingly popular in vegetation management.

Discussions to launch Minnetonka’s experimental goat grazing program for habitat restoration began more than three years ago at the behest of Janet Van Sloun, the city’s restoration specialist, after she learned about programs that used goats as living lawnmowers. After a 2015 visit to Faribault’s River Bend Nature Center, which uses goats, and meeting goat wrangler Jake Langeslag of Goat Dispatch (a goat grazing rental company in Faribault), Colleran and Van Sloun decided to move forward with the program.

From May 10 to July 15 of this year, a herd of 22 goats were kept in paddocks (marked off with low-voltage electric fences) in two of Minnetonka’s parks. Extensive signage alerted park patrons about the fencing, and asked them not to pet or feed the goats. “We wanted [the goats] to focus on eating the garlic mustard and buckthorn,” Colleran says. Langeslag was charged with setting up the paddocks and moving the herd to each new area when the previous area was cleared. The goats spent seven weeks in the 155-acre Purgatory Park, followed by about two weeks in Civic Center Park along Minnehaha Creek.

In reviewing the program’s benefits and challenges, Colleran notes that goats easily navigate hills and unstable terrain, and minimize the need for herbicides. Van Sloun says the goats ate most everything in their path—but, of course, that includes some desirable plants. “The goats are not the cure-all,” she says, but could be an asset paired with other measures.

Late this past summer, Van Sloun says they evaluated what, if any, vegetation returned after the goats’ grazing, and staff monitored whether the program affected erosion. “We have a lot of factors to put together,” she says.

Minnetonka neighbors certainly embraced the program. For her part, Van Sloun says watching the herd hierarchy, learning personality traits of individual goats and modeling behavior for younger goats was fascinating. The goats also served as a vehicle for public outreach. “It really raised the awareness about habitat restoration,” Colleran says. Van Sloun adds, “I don’t think people understand the degradation that has happened in our landscape” due to invasive species.

Goats a go-go
According to goatdispatch.com, goats are built to mow down brush. They:

  • Prefer broad-leaf plants, so they typically avoid grass.
  • Have narrow, strong mouths, enabling them to strip leaves and consume branches.
  • Can stand on their hind legs to reach taller branches.