Grazing goats help create a new riverside natural area

Goat eating foliage

The ceremony to celebrate the recently created Willamette River Natural Area on the north side of campus included speakers, refreshments and tours on a beautiful spring day along the banks of the river.

But a handful of bearded and hungry livestock were the stars of the show.

Goats Bert and Ernie were hanging out right behind the speakers’ canopy, tethered to 15-foot leads and happily munching away at the greenery. They were among a herd of 10 goats hired to begin the process of ridding the area of invasive species, notably the dreaded Himalayan blackberry.

It’s all part of the plan to restore a mile-long, 24-acre section of riverfront, bisected by the Frohnmayer Bridge, into something approaching its natural state.

The ceremony was intended to celebrate the UO’s riverfront, a valuable and important campus asset, that will be gradually restored, said Mike Harwood, associate vice president for campus planning and facilities management. 

Adell Amos, a law professor and director of the Environment Initiative, said the goal of enhancing research and educational opportunities in addition to improving the habitat for native species fits well with the Environment Initiative’s guiding principles.

Consultant Jeff Krueger from JK Environments recounted some of the history of the site. Native Americans lived in the area as far back as 13,000 years ago, and the river, known to tribes as Whilamut, held great cultural significance, he said.

More recently, starting around 1900, the area was an industrial site, including a sand and gravel plant, until the early 1960s. The UO acquired the property in the 1970s, but did little to manage the area, Krueger said.

The current planning process began in 2018, after the city of Eugene approved a conditional-use permit granting the university the ability to restore and develop the land for university uses and research. The previous permit, which was in place for 23 years, expired in 2012. A new permit was required before the university could develop any of the acreage.

Harwood said once the permit was in hand, staff asked, “What are we going to do with this place?”

A habitat advisory team of students, faculty members, staff and outside experts worked with Krueger and Campus Planning and Facilities Management staff to develop a management plan that proposes a number of site improvements, including new universally accessible trails, re-contoured river banks for improved access, areas designated for outdoor classroom space and field study, an osprey nesting platform, habitat snag installations, native habitat demonstration and interpretive sites, and designated river viewpoints and access points.

In addition, proposed plantings include a riparian forest, an upper terrace of mixed woodlands, and a grasslands area with oak trees.

The goats were brought in for three days to see how they did consuming unwanted and invasive plants in the area.

“We are experimenting with goats to help manage invasive species so we can restore the site,” said Steve Mital, UO’s sustainability director. “There are a few areas where there are groves of trees and steep banks that are impossible to mow.”

The goats-for-hire belong to Creekside Management, owned by Jalen and Courtney Brooks. Goats are an eco-friendly way to get rid of unwanted vegetation, Jalen Brooks said, and they’ll eat most anything, including thorny blackberry bushes.

Once they’ve cleaned the leaves off a stem, the goats will nibble on individual thorns, then move on to the stem. The goats were on the site for three days this week to see how much vegetation they could consume.

“If it’s green, goats are going to eat it,” he said.

Campus staff are working with the UO student chapter of Society for Ecological Restoration to collect data from the goat trial and see how it compares to other management techniques.

Mital recounted a close encounter he had with one of the goats earlier in the day when he was walking the site. He noticed the goat was tangled in his lead, but when tried get him straightened out, he unclipped the lead and the goat bolted, launching Mital off his feet.

“I haven’t been airborne like that in years,” he said.

—By Tim Christie, University Communications