MINNESOTA—Land managers on the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri want to restore woodlands, an edge habitat bridging forests and grasslands that is characterized by widely spaced trees and a vibrant forest floor. Discouraging the woody species that grow up to shade the ground and make conditions unsuitable for flora like purple prairie clover, butterfly weed and rattlesnake master is a key part of restoring woodlands, and prescribed fire is often the go-to tool.
On one particular piece of land, however, restoring woodland habitat is complicated by proximity to people and roadways, both of which limit use of fire. For the past few years, Mark Twain National Forest managers have been interested in using goats for woodland restoration outside of non-native plant species control. But there is very little research available to guide them in decisions about when and for how long grazing is beneficial to achieving multiple objectives, so they turned to Northern Research Station scientists based in Columbia, Missouri, for help.
Research ecologist Lauren Pile and her University of Missouri colleague, research associate professor Mike Stambaugh, have designed a study that will explore what effects prescribed grazing and grazing seasonality have on forest structure and composition, including ground flora, compare prescribed grazing with prescribed burning, and determine how effective a combination of grazing and fire is for woodland management. Fifty goats arrived at the forest April 1, launching the first installment of the study.
The goats were supplied by a contractor and are protected from predators (and from wandering off) by an electric fence. For the duration of the two-year study, University of Missouri masters student Gina Beebe will be responsible for measuring how vegetation responds to grazing throughout the growing season.
“There is not a lot known about goats as a woodland restoration tool,” Pile said. “Our research will give Mark Twain National Forest managers what they need to make decisions, and it will probably present us with a whole new suite of questions.”