Tackling oak savanna restoration with live ‘mowing machines’

Hungry goats are bringing ecosystems back to life at Minnesota Valley NWR

How do you restore nature’s perfect ecosystem?

At the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), it involves bringing in some ravenous ruminants—to wit, goats.

“These are not dairy goats. They are not meat goats. These are mowing machines,” says Steve Thomforde with a laugh.

At the Minnesota Valley NWR, volunteers with Bloomington-based Refuge Friends Inc. have launched a program to bring back oak savanna—the most advanced, functional, productive and provisional terrestrial ecosystem on earth, which offers quality forage to wildlife, including pollinators, and acts as a beneficial carbon sink.

They’re starting with two acres of refuge land near the Minnesota Valley NWR visitor center, where open-growth oak trees are severely overgrown by poor-quality woody vegetation. With intense shade eliminating edible ground vegetation, weeds like garlic mustard and buckthorn—which range from non-edible to toxic—have taken its place, causing erosion concerns and threatening wildlife dependent on quality forage.

Goats—specifically, their iron-clad constitution—are an essential part of the solution.

“Remember the cartoons that showed a goat eating a tin can? The goat is a primitive grazer, and has the capacity to eat some really low-quality stuff,” says Thomforde, vice president of Refuge Friends Inc. “And I like to call goats the ‘gateway grazer’ . . . because if we can accept goats, we may accept sheep or even small cattle down the line.”

The three-year timeline for this restoration project involves seeding, weeding, tree thinning and burning brush piles. Also planned are four visits by a herd of 15 hungry goats—beginning with a week-long munching session that took place in mid-October, and was witnessed by multiple Twin Cities-area land managers and members of a congressional committee visiting from Washington, DC.

In 2015, Enbridge became the first corporate partner for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) National Wildlife Refuge Friends program, which offers funding for NWR Friends groups—volunteers that play a key role in conserving natural resources identified for protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2017, Enbridge awarded grants totaling more than $74,000 to Friends groups near our projects and operations in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Texas and New York State—including a donation of just under $14,000 for the Minnesota Valley NWR’s oak savanna restoration project.

These donations support Enbridge’s commitment to sustainability—helping to meet North America’s growing energy needs in ways that are economically, environmentally and socially responsible.

“Twenty million years ago, savannas with grazing animals were covering the planet. We’ve largely lost grazing animals—the buffalo, the elk, and then cattle, which have done a good job of mimicking them. And then, with more trees, shade on the ground meant we lost the grasses and the flowers, and soils became highly erosive,” says Thomforde.

“A lot of scientific journals show that grasslands are really pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. We hear a lot about planting trees to reduce greenhouse gases. Actually, what we really should be doing is planting savanna.”