Leah Compton had been warned about how bad the spotted knapweed infestation was along the East Ridge when she took over as weed coordinator for the Butte and Whitehall areas on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
But when she went out for a hike in the area, she was appalled at the condition of the hillsides there.
"I thought, ‘What am I going to do with this — this is a nightmare,'" Compton said Thursday. "I called it knapweed nation." Compton said the Forest Service tried spraying the area but that failed. They tried biological controls, too, with bugs that eat knapweed — also to no avail.
She turned to Robert Hanke, who prefers to take care of weeds with goats. The hungry critters munch away on the noxious weed and kill the seeds so the weeds don't spread.
Hanke arrived this week for the month-long experiment with 52 goats. He's camping in the area and tending to the goats.
It's no small task.
He's up with the sun to ride his mule up the hill and lead Elvis, Bruno and the rest of the goats up into the areas he wants grazed. He rides down in mid morning and then hikes back up the hill several times a day to check and move his goats.
They're a voracious bunch, munching on knapweed as they saunter around the rocky terrain. And they're here just as the knapweed is sprouting buds, which give off a chemical saying they're tasty to the goats.
"They're nipping the tips off," he said, holding the top of a knapweed plant that looked like it had been pruned. "They don't get all of them, but probably 70 percent of the seeds are gone." Hanke explained that after the buds are nipped off the plants, they go into root shock. One year of goat grazing won't kill the knapweed, but coming back for several years will.
"It literally kills off the root system of the plants," Hanke said.
And the goats' mouths crush knapweed seeds so they can't germinate.
Hanke, who lives on acreage in Three Forks and farms there, hasn't been without challenges during his East Ridge stay. A young bull moose chased the goats out of their overnight pen one night, and several people on ATVs harassed them another evening. One ATV rider was caught and ticketed.
Compton said letting the goats work will be key to whether the program is a success.
Her budget for the project is $2,500 n a real bargain. She plans to bring Hanke and his goats back to treat the 500 acres just east of the BNSF Railroad Co. tracks, which includes Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and railroad land. She said it will take a few years, but the reduction in knapweed will be noticeable if given time.
"Especially in an area like that, where you still have pretty good native plants like bitterbrush and aspen, it's pretty hard to spray because you can kill that stuff," she said. "The goats are really good for the resource." Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Attention dog walkers, ATV riders The U.S. Forest Service is asking people walking their dogs in the Maud S Canyon area to keep their animals leashed while the goats are grazing. Even well-behaved dogs can scare the goats and may chase them.