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Malmstrom AFB, Mont., brought in hundreds of goats to eat invasive weeds taking over areas of the base. The 900 goats are expected to cover 800-1,000 acres over the course of six weeks. Photo by Jenn Rowell.

​—Jenn Rowell

When they first ran into a field on the eastern side of Malmstrom AFB, Mont., on Monday, the herd of 500 goats was barely visible through the weedy overgrowth.

But the Spanish Boer Cross goats will quickly eat through the patch, which is roughly a third of an acre before being moved to a neighboring section within 24 hours.

This is the second of a three-year project that’s part of the base’s weed management program, in conjunction with US Fish and Wildlife Service.

For now, the herd consists of 200 mamas and 300 kids. The goats will be on Malmstrom for six weeks and another 400 adult goats are on the way to join the herd. Over that time, they’ll likely cover 800-1,000 acres.

The goats naturally prefer flowing plants, which are often non-native invasive species in Montana, said Lora Soderquist, the project manager from Prescriptive Livestock Services.

In recent years, thorny invasive species like thistle and kochia have rapidly spread in areas of the base often used for training exercises, creating difficult conditions for physical training on the ground. Goats will eat those plants.

Over the course of the three-year project, the goats will wear the seed bank out of the soil, reduce the root system for perennials, and also improve the soil and encourage native species, Soderquist said, who also works as an adjunct professor at Montana State University in the land resources and environmental sciences department.

The Air Force has directives to reduce herbicide use while also promoting pollinators, said Dr. Elin Pierce, of US Fish and Wildlife (FWS), who is embedded at Malmstrom as the natural resources manager.

Malmstrom is leading the Air Force in using goats for weed control, though they were used for a few years in the late 2000s at F.E. Warren AFB, Wyo. The program is estimated to save $10,000 to $20,000 annually in personnel and herbicide costs, plus the goats also bring environmental benefits to the base and surrounding area by controlling noxious weeds and promoting native species, Pierce said.

A smaller herd was at Malmstrom for a few days last summer to demonstrate to base leadership the project’s potential, answer questions, and address any concerns about having goats graze around nuclear operations. The project was approved not long after.

The program is contracted through FWS with funds from the Air Force Civil Engineering Center. Though paperwork snags delayed the start this year, Piece said they secured funds for two years and will be able to start earlier next year, making a bigger dent on young weeds.

People spraying herbicides are limited by terrain in some areas of base and also by weather conditions like Monday’s near triple digits temperatures and high winds.

Goats on the other hand, merrily ate weeds, drank a little water, and some rested in the shade but Soderquist said they’d likely finish their work in the first pen within six to eight hours.

“One thing you can really bank on, is when they get here, the goats are going to do their job,” Piece said.