Caltrans turns to goats for habitat restoration project

Aug 6, 2019

If you’ve been on the north San Luis Obispo County coast in the past few weeks, you may have noticed some new fauna off the side of the road: goats. A state agency has been using goats to remove non-native plants from a former stretch of highway, and if all goes well, they could become a regular sight on Central Coast roadways.

Caltrans District 5 landscape architect Katherine Brown stood near her truck parked off Highway 1 and explained the Piedras Blancas project.

“It’s about a three-mile section, along the coast.” Brown said. “We relocated the highway away from the coastline due to coastal erosion and sea level rise."

Brown said waves used to crash on the old section of the highway, located between San Simeon and Ragged Point, so Caltrans moved a portion of the highway about 500 feet east. Since the job was completed in 2017, Brown and her team have been working to reestablish the native coastal prairie. But some plants species that aren’t supposed to be there snuck in.

“Recently we had an invasion of some invasive plants that we are trying to control with goat grazing,” Brown said.

On a cool, foggy Monday morning in late July, 300 goats are penned up on an old section of the coastal highway, now covered in grass and plants. Brown said most of the goats are female and pregnant, each with a couple of seven-to-eight month-year-old kids in tow. There are few male, or billy, goats in the herd as well.

The weeds in this area have little flower heads the goats eat, which removes the seeds, then they eat the leaves, preventing the plants from photosynthesizing and building a root system.

“They’re leaving some of the natives, and primarily going for the tasty invasives [like] mustard,” Brown said. “Looks like they like the radish as well.”

It does take a while, however, for the goats to develop their palette for all the weeds, like bur clover and thistle.

Their shepardess is Margarita Aceves.

“At the beginning they didn’t really like this type of food,” Aceves said. “It’s their first time tasting this type of plant...now they are used to it so they are eating it pretty quick.”

Aceves’ goats, from Living Systems Land Management in Coalinga, recently finished clearing one area on this Monday morning and were anxious to move to another. Aceves opened the fence and the herd of hungry goats began bleating loudly and ran across the bluffs to a brand new food supply.

Aceves said the goats eat everything green first, then go after the dead, brown plants. Unlike cows, the goats don’t leave digested seeds behind that will sprout again—just a lot of fertilizer. The goats eat about an acre of plants a day.

“You have some greedy goats because they are the ones that like to eat everywhere,” Aceves said, pointing at goats darting across the cordoned-off acre. “They don’t stop when they get to one spot, they move back and forth. And [if] one goat moves fast, the rest move behind her.”

Before this job, Aceves was enrolled in college studying to be a teacher. Now she’s saving up money to go back. Her brother had been working with goats and suggested she give it a try.

“He’s the one that told me, you wanna work so you can finish paying your debt,” Aceves said. “I was like, 'Animals, really? I work with children.' [But] I was like, 'OK, fine,' and I came out for two months' training and then I started working on projects with him. It’s a pretty awesome.”

Aceves and her brother use an electric fence to pen the goats— it keeps the goats in and predators out. She wakes up a few times each night to check on them, and both she and her brother haul in water for the animals. Aceves says sometimes a goat will get sick because it eats something it shouldn’t, like mushrooms, but most of the time things go pretty smoothly. In addition to the Piedras Blancas job, they are also working on other projects across the state.

“We work for fire hazard behind all the houses, and in national parks,” Aceves said. “Those were hills, not flat like here, so this is an easy job.”

Katherine Brown said Caltrans has been using goats for wildfire fuel reduction in the Bay Area for years. Now agency staff are discussing doing the same on the Central Coast.

A Caltrans spokesperson said the Piedras Blancas project costs $20,000. Brown said it was cheaper than other options for getting rid of non-native species.

“We wanted to come up with a sustainable practice to reduce herbicide use and be better for the environment,” Brown said. “Less pesticides and herbicides close to the ocean and in the creeks.”

Brown said goats have been used before on the Central Coast to control highway vegetation, but it was under a bridge, out of public view. The Piedas Blancas project is the first visible goat project by Caltrans District 5. Depending on how the projects works out—and if the weeds don’t return—goats could become a regular sight near Central Coast roadways.

The goats will make a couple more passes over the Piedras Blancas area and are scheduled to return to the north San Luis Obispo coast in the spring.