Goat Weedwacker 101: Invasive Species and Restoring Wetlands
Written By: Michael Misanik, Amateur Naturalist & TMCC Student
Stretching back long before the first wagon trains came rolling through Nevada, the Truckee Meadows was dominated by a wealth of the native ecosystem from the high ponderosa pine forests in the Carson Range of the Sierras, to the once vast marshland and sloughs of Steamboat stream. Before early settlers arrived to what is now the Reno/Sparks area, much of the valley was dominated by vast marshland, full of waterfowl, fish, amphibians, and other native wildlife, along with cottonwoods and willows lining the Truckee River and it’s smaller tributaries. When European settlers arrived to the Truckee Meadows, these ecosystems were altered forever. Forests were cleared for timber and mining beams, marshes were drained to make way for fertile farmland and new species were introduced to the region. Some of them were livestock, while others were "hitchhikers". These "hitchhikers" are better known as invasive species.
An invasive species is a plant or animal introduced (either accidentally or intentionally) to a part of the world to which they are not native, and said organism is then having a negative impact on the local ecosystem. The Truckee Meadows is home to a range of invasive species that have become a common sight as well as having damaged many of the native ecosystems that still remain. A few of them that have caused the most trouble in our area include, Russian Olive, Tall Whitetop, American Bullfrogs, Tree-of-Heaven, and Signal Crayfish.
My first encounter with an invasive species was back when I was 9 years old while my dad and I were swimming at Lake Tahoe. While I was swimming around a saw a couple of crayfish crawling on the lake bed and I thought they were baby lobsters. It was not until a little later that I understood they were crayfish, and that they were an invasive species in the Truckee River system. This unexpected introduction to the topic of invasive species when I was young, has inspired me to learn more about these unique organisms.
Signal Crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus)
Originally brought to Lake Tahoe from the Pacific Northwest during the 1930s as a source of food for the introduced Lake Trout and to be used as live bait for fishing.
These freshwater cousins of the lobster have quickly spread across the Tahoe Basin and into the Truckee River where they have become a common sight. As they spread, they have altered many of our waterways by disturbing/ living in the sand and mud which increases algae growth and reduces water clarity in many areas. However in recent years the surge of crayfish, at least in Tahoe, has begun to halt in an amazing and unique way. Starting in 2011, the Tahoe Lobster Company began commercial harvest of crayfish in Lake Tahoe with much of the catch being sold to various restaurants, thanks to a partnership with Sierra Gold Seafood Company. From what I have seen over the past 17 years of fishing for crayfish at Lake Tahoe, it seems that the harvesting of crayfish is having an impact. With the amount of crayfish I have caught over the years gradually getting smaller and smaller. So, there may be some hope when it comes to reducing the impact of these little alien invaders in the Truckee River Watershed.
Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia)
Originally from Western and Central Asia the Russian Olive was initially brought to the American west in the late 19th century as an ornamental plant. This unassuming tree quickly spread along the river, stream, and washout system throughout many western states. Here in the Truckee Meadows these
thorny invaders are a common site along our waterways where they have halted the natural rhythm of the flow of water by outcompeting native willows and cottonwoods for space and in turn reducing local wildlife habitat.The question you may be asking is; How did these seemingly harmless trees get so wide spread? It turns out their slow invasion was helped out by various local songbird feeding on Russian Olive seeds and unintentionally spreading them across the Truckee Meadows.
Tall WhiteTop (Lepidium latifolium)
Another import from Western Asia, the Tall Whitetop (also known as perennial pepperweed), has become an accidental surge across much of Nevada's wetland and riparian areas starting when some Tall Whitetop seeds came along with crop seeds in the early 1900s
This resilient invader which can grow up to 6 feet in height is a major issue in the last patches of wetlands in the Truckee Meadows. Due to its habit of forming dense monocultures which completely push out native plants and of course reduces biodiversity. This encroachment of wildlife habitat and the push into the grazing lands of farmers is a big point of concern in Nevada because Tall Whitetop is toxic to wild and domestic horses, as well as cattle. The Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation is dealing with this particularly difficult invasive weed in a unique, but old fashioned way.
Invasive species can be a real challenge to remove and they act as a major obstacle to restoring the
ecosystems damaged, but it is not impossible to undo the damage caused by such species. One local site where native habitat is being restored and invasive weeds are being cleared out, is the Rosewood Nature Study Area in East Reno. This area in the past was a vibrant wetland connected to the Truckee River by Steamboat Creek. However, these days the area has been heavily developed with many homes and businesses constructed in the area along with the Rosewood Lakes Golf Course. This golf course was the previous facility prior to the rewilding area being established. During the time between the golf course closing and the Parks Foundation moving in, a series of invasive species quickly established their new home, with the Tall Whitetop being the most prolific. When the restoration process began with removing dense areas of weeds they knew it was going to be a difficult undertaking. However, a unique solution had been discussed at the nature study area since the beginning… Goats!
As odd as it may sound, Goats are an excellent form of weed control. They can pick different types of plant and in a sense munch them down and fertilize the soil for future wetland recovery. But why were goats picked? Well in short, goats are one of the most eco-friendly ways of removing invasive plants since there is no need for harsh chemicals, no fossil fuels to power machinery, and the goats are a proven successful weedwacker. They have been raised for centuries in different cultures as a source of meat, milk and as four-legged brush clearing machines. The goat herd currently at the nature study area is being rented out from High Desert Graziers. They are a targeted grazing service that utilizes goats to control noxious weeds without the use of chemicals and machinery.
Currently it is unknown exactly what the results of the goat grazing will be in the nature study area, but hopes are high. Goats have been used across the United States to combat noxious weeds and help restore native ecosystems. A few examples include them removing weeds around Los Angeles to help combat wildfires, in places like Georgia they have been used to clear massive mats of Kudzu vines, and in Wyoming they have been used to clear roadside of weeds such as leafy spurge (another invasive plant that is toxic to some livestock). As the fields of Tall White Top are cleared out and replaced by native plants the hope is that the wetlands of the Rosewood Nature Study Area will return back to how it once was.
About the Author:
Michael Misanik is a lifelong Nevadan, who is currently working on an associate degree in Environmental Science with a minor in history. His enjoyment and knowledge of the natural world is
only rivaled by his love of history both local and worldwide. This enjoyment of history and the natural world has been fueled by Michael’s many travels across the United States. Michael has visited 78 museums, 37 different zoos/aquariums, and 38 national parks. He has studied art and enjoys photographing his travels; this has filled his love for travel. Michael is currently volunteering at the Truckee Meadows Parks Foundation as a Park Historian were he researches and tells the stories of the various public parks found in the Reno Sparks area, check out his park histories on the Park Foundation website.