The National Park Service is experimenting with four-legged weed-eaters to get rid of kudzu and other fast-growing, invasive weed species in the Thurmond area of the New River Gorge National River.
Starting Friday, 24 goats will begin a month-long period of intensive grazing in the brush and weeds surrounding, and partially covering, the old Fayette County railroad town.
Kudzu, along with other nonnative plants like Japanese knotweed and multiflora rose, takes over land formerly dominated by native flora that wildlife depend on for food and shelter. At Thurmond, dense patches of kudzu have also put historic structures at risk and have increased wildfire risk by providing a heavier than normal fuel load.
In the past, National Park Service personnel have used chemical and mechanical treatments in an effort to remove invasive plants in the Thurmond area, but they have had little success.
“Goats have proven to be effective at killing plants because they eat all the foliage, which then prompts the plants to use up stored energy in their roots for new growth,” according to a news release from the New River Gorge National River. “Goats will then continue eating the plants, stressing and weakening them until they can no longer survive.”
Goats also eat flowers, ensuring that targeted plants will not reproduce, since seeds are destroyed when passing through goats’ digestive systems.
The animals are being provided by Green Goats, of Rhinebeck, New York, a business that has deployed its goats to remove invasive plants at parks, colleges and historic sites in five Eastern states. Clients have included the Gateway National Recreation Area, in New York City, where plants were threatening a Civil War-era gun battery, and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
“Thurmond will be the furthest we’ve gone,” said Green Goats co-owner Larry Cihanek on Tuesday, reached while en route to Fayette County with a load of fencing he and a crew of local laborers will begin erecting at Thurmond on Wednesday.
Several Fayette County residents have been hired to water and look after the goats during their stay in the New River Gorge. A local veterinarian who raises goats has been contacted to provide any medical services that might be needed.
“These goats, which weigh 160 pounds on average, will eat 20 to 25 percent of their body weight each day,” thanks to the processing capabilities of their four stomachs, Cihanek said. “That’s a lot of vines and leaves. I like to say that our goats are living the American dream — they eat for a living.”
The use of goats for targeted plant removal saves parks 50 percent or more in cost compared with chemical or mechanical methods, according to Cihanek, while providing a boost in park visitation, since people like to see the goats at work.
The goats are scheduled to return to Thurmond during the next two years to continue their work, while Park Service biologists gauge their effectiveness. The grazed areas will later be reseeded with native grass and wildflower species.
Visitors are welcome to travel to Thurmond during the next month to see the goats in action, according to the Park Service.