Wednesday, November 9, 2011

BLM: Weed-eating goats need permit

Agency says grazing along bike path needs oversight

Express Staff Writer

Goats feast on knapweed and other unwanted plants along the Wood River Trails bike path last summer. Photo by Mountain Express

BLM representatives said last week that if the Blaine County Recreation District wants to use weed-eating goats on the full length of the Wood River Trails system, it needs to obtain a grazing permit.

"Goats are grazing, too," said Ruth Miller, field manager for the BLM's Shoshone office, during a meeting of the Blaine County commissioners on Tuesday, Nov. 1.

The weed-eating-goat plan started earlier this year, as the Pesticide Action Network, a local group dedicated to eliminating the use of pesticides on public land, partnered with the Recreation District to provide an alternative to spraying knapweed along the trail.

About 700 goats began nibbling knapweed in July, targeting stands of the high-protein plant for destruction. The goats swept through on each side of the trail from north of Ketchum to south of Bellevue, mostly using a livestock easement granted by the Idaho Transportation Department, which granted the bike path easement to the Recreation District.

However, Miller said several sections of the path—most notably an area known as Sun Peak north of Ketchum and a 781-foot stretch south of East Fork—are managed by the BLM. Tara Hagen, realty specialist with the BLM, said the bike path crosses less than a mile of BLM land.

"The bike path is a patchwork of lots of different land ownership situations," said Recreation District Executive Director Jim Keating. "We did not go on that BLM land this year."

Keating said the BLM's statement is unlikely to impact the program in the future, as the goats only target certain knapweed stands.

"When you think about a grazing solution like goats, what ends up happening is that they go after these targeted patches, which might not even be on BLM land," he said. "If we need a permit in the future, we'll get it."

Miller said the BLM has already been contacted by the Recreation District regarding permitting for next year. Working with a federal agency such as the BLM requires any project to go through a public process under the National Environmental Protection Act, including a public comment period.

"That's usually what is time-consuming on our part," Miller said in an interview.

The public "scoping" process, as it is known, can take upwards of several months, she added, meaning that if the district plans on using goats during the early summer months, the permits may not be cleared in time.

"It depends on how controversial the issues ends up being," she said.

The only widely voiced objection to the program has been the goat droppings left on the trail, which spurred several bike path users to write angry letters to the editor of the Idaho Mountain Express this summer.

Keating said the district was aware of the problem, but said the goats did not leave as many droppings as might be expected.

"The reason we know is because we keep track of these things," he said with a laugh.

The contractors who herd the goats, Prescriptive Livestock Services, are meant to sweep the path behind the goats, Keating said. Goats don't actually travel on the path itself, though they sometimes need to cross from one side to the other—which is when the path-droppings occur.

"That's something we can improve on," Keating said. "[The district] sweeps often anyway, so that's something we can try to manage for the community."

Kathryn Goldman, spokeswoman for the Pesticide Action Network, said that despite permit wrangling and goat droppings, the first year of the program's three-year pilot has been a success.

"We're really pleased to have chemicals off the trail," she said, adding that she has noticed the district's attempts to keep the trail clean despite the herd of goats and their excrement.

"A little poop in exchange for the safety of our children isn't such a bad thing," she said.

Katherine Wutz:

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