Goats initiate Phase 1 of a plan to return some of the Bosque to its natural state
Why use a mower that burns fuel when you can send in the herd?
What to eat next? Goats between bites during weed-cleanup work at the Candelaria Nature Preserve. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)
The latest public servants tasked with protecting the natural environment that make up Albuquerque’s Bosque eat all day and have four legs.
This week more than 150 goats are munching on weeds at the Candelaria Nature Preserve on the east side of the Rio Grande. The goats are the first step in a new 20-year resource management plan that will convert the city’s Open Space area from an agricultural producer — mostly growing alfalfa — into a natural grasslands habitat preserving the Bosque’s ecosystem for wildlife.
Cameron Weber, the habitat conservation director with Rio Grande Return, said the goats are protecting the Bosque by clearing noxious and unwanted weeds and doing so without the need to burn man power or ethanol from large farm equipment.
“I compared this before to getting on the tractor to go mow. You know, I’d rather have the goats doing that work,” she said, ”because they do a more complete job of it. Honestly, they don’t compact the soil. They don’t disturb the soil with a sweeping blade and everything.”
Albuquerque officials agreed on this work at the start of the year and the City Council adopted the Candelaria Nature Preserve Resource Management Plan in September. The goats are Phase 1, and they are clearing tumbleweeds, Siberian elms and Johnsongrass to help turn the soil where natural wildflowers will soon take over in the next phase.
Max Wade runs Galloping Goat Grazing, the home where the goats return after their workday in the Bosque.
He said while they’re eating weeds, the goats are also micro-tilling the soil with their hooves with tiny divots that give rain a better chance of saturating the soil.
“So we’re putting nutrients into the soil,” he said. “We’re providing capacity building for the soil to hold water.”
Wade got into the goat business 20 years ago.
“We have a pumpkin patch that we run in the fall. And the goats are always there for entertainment, education, families,” Wade said.
With the pandemic shuttering public events, he needed to figure something else out. “We had to pivot our operations. Since we weren’t going to be able to do our pumpkin patch, we knew that we had to do something else with goats,” he said.
That’s when his kids came up with the idea of lending them out to chew on weeds, which also provides a means for the animals to do what they do best — eat.
It started slowly with private lawns. Eventually, he had his goats doing weed mitigation with Sandia Pueblo.
Today, Wade oversees the herd when they’re working. But his kids are plotting temporary fences about one-quarter acre in size to pen the goats into a targeted areas instead of letting them roam where they may.
The goats eat and eat. And eat. In about 20 minutes, they cleared through most of the branches from a Siberian elm that had just been cut down. A couple of sheep that are part of the herd were also hungry. Their work on the plot will likely be done by the end of the week, Wade said.
As the goats feast on weeds, satisfying their cravings and clearing the area for future plant growth, they are also fertilizing and kneading in native seeds for the winter and spring germination period.
“That helps the soil microbes and everything get woken up that have been pretty used to being inundated with flood irrigation,” Weber said. “We seeded with a mix of cover crop species and pollinator plants right before the goats came on. So the goats are also helping to plant that seed even better.”
Using goats for weed mitigation is a trend sparking up across the world and it’s a callback to a traditional farming method used even in the Bosque area for years.
“You talk to the old folks in the villages here, they’ll tell you, ‘We used goats, and we used livestock to maintain the Bosque. The (area) didn’t have all these weedy plants, and that was because we did allow the livestock to get in there,” Weber said.
That focus on tradition and using natural farming techniques like goat-grazing can help ease the pressure to turn agricultural spaces into commercial development by way of urban sprawl or a farming enterprise.
“This is another model where this is instead being converted to habitats that will provide ecosystem services to not just the wildlife that will be here at all times of year, but also to greater Albuquerque and the Middle Rio Grande,” Weber said.
If successful, the 20-year plan will continue to keep the Bosque the city’s gem.
“There’s a deep attraction that we have to walk into and under these trees,” she said. “ It concentrates sort of a love of place in a way that I haven’t seen happen in other parts of New Mexico, anywhere else, really. This is one of the few places in New Mexico I think ecologically where nature really just puts on such an incredible show of excess.”
History of the preserve
The Candelaria Nature Preserve was purchased by the city of Albuquerque in 1977. It is about 167 acres in the North Valley, next to the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park.
Money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund was used to help purchase the land that is maintained in part by the city’s Open Space Division with a focus on preserving and protecting natural habitats, supporting local ecosystems and educating the public on the environment that makes up the Bosque.
The Candelaria Nature Preserve Resource Management Plan was adopted by the City Council in September. Groups implementing and overseeing the plan include: Ciudad Soil and Water Conservation District, Rio Grande Return, Galloping Goat Grazing, the city’s Open Space Division and Healthy Soils Program with the NM Department of Agriculture.
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