Animals provide rare chance for work on levees

About 240 goats are eating their way through brush and grass on the levee system surrounding the Wall Walla River this week. It’s part of a program to cut down on the amount of vegetation in an environmentally friendly manner.

Milton-Freewater is hosting about 240 hungry visitors this week.

The Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council helped organize bringing 240 goats to gnaw down bushes and grasses on the levees along the Walla Walla River.

Deciding exactly what to do about vegetation is a big speed bump for the Milton-Freewater Water Control?District’s work to repair the levee system. Federal agencies disagree about how many, if any, bushes and trees should be on the levees.

But one thing all the federal agencies could agree on??Goats.

More than a year ago Brian Wolcott, WWBWC director, suggested goats as a simple way to take care of some of the overgrowth. People chuckled, but no one was against it. As it turns out, goats are an accepted way to keep vegetation at bay.

Wolcott said it’s easier than cutting or burning the brush. And it's easier for goats to get in between rocks and under trees — places that aren’t so easy for humans and machinery to get to.

Wolcott and Wendy Harris, WWBWC operations manager, worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to obtain a $7,000 grant.

That grant is paying for the 240 goats to “work” on the levee for nine days. They started Wednesday afternoon and will be there until next Thursday.

Craig Madsen, shepherd at Healing Hooves of Edwall, Wash., brought the goats to Milton-Freewater. His herd is made up of about 50 percent adult goats and 50 percent month-old kids. Even though the kids are young, they already are eating grass and brush.

The goats, and Madsen, are staying on the levees 24/7. The goats eat about 10 hours a day, Madsen said. The rest of the time they chew their cud or sleep.

Madsen pens them into each area and lets the goats clear it. Once they’re done, he makes another pen for the next section. He moves them about once a day.

On Friday, the goats already had covered about a half mile of levee. Madsen estimated they might munch up three or four miles worth of grass and shrubs by the end of next week.

To document the goats’ work, Harris is taking before-and-after photos at specific GPS points.

“We just have to gauge the effect based on what we see,”?she said.

 One of the goals of this project is making sure there is room for inspectors to see the levee itself. That wasn’t always possible in the past. The areas the goats had covered by Friday looked as if they’d been trimmed by a machine.

Madsen said the goats take care of brush on Tolt River Dam in Washington for the same reason: So inspectors can get in to take a look at it.

The Milton-Freewater Water Control District, after a hard-won $2.85 million bond election last fall, has the money to fix its levee system. Though the district is still waiting on the federal agencies to agree on the vegetation issue, it hopes to complete some work this summer.

In the meantime, it’s nice for riverkeepers to have at least one tool in their belt for working on that problem. Wolcott and Harris hope using goats can be an ongoing option for keeping the brush down along the levee.

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