When I first heard about a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) using goats as a tool to manage invasive woody vegetation at Grinnell’s Conard Environmental Research Area (CERA), I was incredibly excited about the opportunity to get hands-on experience with an idea I had toyed with as a possible business venture. And even though I was rejected as a primary member of the MAP, I ended up having the opportunity to work on the project anyway.
Every summer, two students help manage CERA, primarily pulling and spraying weeds. This summer we also helped with the goat MAP, organized by Brian Perbix and Curran Johnson (both ’09). Among other things, we maintained fence lines, moved goats to and between paddocks, and sampled vegetation. For all of us, it was a great way to get hands-on experience with research and environmental work and get paid for it. At a big university, research opportunities usually go to graduate students, and few small liberal arts colleges have the financial resources Grinnell does.
My summer had lots of great memories, from wrangling goats to the goat that always yelled if we didn’t give her corn, to more peaceful moments examining the impact on vegetation. I remember seeing rare prairie plants that had somehow avoided being choked out by the invading vegetation. I saw native impatiens (I. capensis) come into bloom with a flower totally different from the impatiens planted en masse in garden flowerbeds. Once we saw the goats actually playing (or maybe fighting) with each other. They would rear back and then butt their horns together with a mighty crash. This doesn’t hurt them, but it was impressive to watch.
At CERA, I learned that using goats for restoration work probably wouldn’t be a very effective commercial venture, but it was definitely less damaging to the habitat than a tractor with chains or herbicides. Comparing the enclosures with goats to those without, we could see the differences as well as feel them as we attempted to walk through the thickets. It was interesting to see how the vegetation regrew in the goat enclosures; doubtless it will be even more interesting to watch how the land changes over the next several years as the experiment continues.
I hope to revisit CERA in 10 years and see the thicket of vicious multiflora rose transformed into a beautiful prairie and savanna through the healing power of goats and fire (another integral part of almost all ecosystems in Iowa).
Jacob Gjesdahl '10 is an Economics major from Birmingham, Alabama.