Vandalism terminates “Green Goats” initiative at Marist

Gone for good.

A three-year operation to control vegetation at Marist College’s nature preserve via the hankering, non-selective appetites of six local goats has decidedly concluded following vandalism perpetrations this past July and August.

“The goats are not safe here,” said Dr. Richard Feldman, a Marist Associate Professor of Environmental Science and coordinator of Green Goats’ contract with the school.

In summer months, six goats cumulative eight-week stay at the nature preserve, half in July and then again in August, was marked by their intentional release not once- but three times. Unidentified vandals tampered with the electric fence, in place to confine the animals to one acre within the 12-acre Fern Tor Nature Preserve north of Gartland housing. “The fence was lifted at least once and then finally the fence was cut; that was the final straw,” Dr. Feldman said, “With Route 9 to the east and the railroad tracks to the west, it’s just too hazardous to have the goats running loose.”

Allegations of vandalism were reported my Dr. Feldman to Marist Security, as well as to the Town of Poughkeepsie Police who filed a blotter report. Culprits were never caught and, according to Director of Safety and Security at Marist, John Gildard, “Acts of vandalism were never really substantiated.”

Green Goats, or “weapons of grass destruction,” as referred to by the NY Daily News, is an inventive farm in Rhinebeck NY that rents out their goats for environmentally friendly vegetation control in the tri-state area. Commissioned by national and state parks, cemeteries, and colleges throughout the past nine years, the goats have grazed in over 150 locations. Their business began at the Civil War Gun Battery at Fort Wadsworth in NYC to landscape the hill and offer a better view for tourists viewing sights like the Statue of Liberty. In their decade-long business, owners Ann and Larry Cihanek of Rhinebeck have never dealt with mismanagement of their goats until this past August.

Green Goats grazing at Pelham Park in the Bronx, NY.

Green Goats grazing at Pelham Park in the Bronx, NY.

“Marist was an anomaly,” Larry Cihanek said in the month following the goat removal from Marist property, “We’ve been in Jersey City and the Bronx where it’s rough, rough neighborhoods, and never before had any issued with vandalism or harm to the goats.”

In the two prior summers at Marist, there was no vandalism with the animals or the fence.

Incentivized by invasive Japanese knotweed, Dr. Feldman facilitated the goats’ first arrival in the summer of 2013. Secluded from sight, Marist’s nature preserve hosted Green Goats biannually for three to four-week stints in summer months, and once last May during the final month of the semester.

Dr. Feldman originally brought Green Goats to Marist in an effort to protect the biodiversity among the preserve. “Over a period of about ten years I’ve noticed that this plant has been occupying more and more of the [natural preserve] land and outcompeting the native vegetation. My motivation was to figure out a way to control-not irradiate but control- the Japanese knotweed,“ the professor said. The suppression of the knotweed is vital to re-establishing native vegetation. As an environmental science instructor, Dr. Feldman frequents the preserve, with classes for educational purposes.

Japanese knotweed, scientifically known as Fallopia japonica, is a perennial plant native to East Asia that grows up to ten feet tall between the months of April and October. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the methods of controlling this highly invasive species include: digging, cutting, herbicides mulching, and grazing.

While formal research has yet to be concluded, Dr. Feldman, with the help of students Omar Perez and Adriana Gelpi, suspects that grazing is the most effective and economical measure of suppression.

As a perennial species, Japanese knotweed regenerates from its roots and rhizomes every year. “The underground rhizome is very resilient because it breaks apart into many pieces,” said retired botanist and research scientist at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, Ed Demarest, “The goats may have an effect if they constantly crop the vegetative portion because that will starve the rootstock.” If this process is maintained, the idea is that reduced carbohydrates transmitting to the roots should eventually weaken them, making the plant less vigorous in successive years so that native vegetation can compete with knotweed for nutrients. In full, Dr. Feldman estimated the success of this process to follow a five-year trajectory, now disrupted by the fence cutters.

“If there was a way to secure the safety of the goats, I think this method would prove to be effective and efficient at the same time,” said Adriana Gelpi, who worked closely with the goats, bringing them water and monitoring them daily throughout their summer stay at Marist. Comparative data for Gelpi, Perez, and Dr. Feldman’s research came from plots of land where they tested other methods of controlling the plant, such as digging it up by the roots and manually cutting the plant down as the goats would do naturally.

An outline of the different methods for control of Japanese knotweed. A full-sized version of this poster is displayed near Dyson 235.

An outline of the different methods for control of Japanese knotweed. A full-sized version of this poster is displayed near Donnelly 235.

While speculation about the vandals varies between Dr. Feldman and his team, it is hoped that the goat release was not done in malice. It is possible that the perpetrator thought they were freeing captive animals, although a sign on the fence announcing the study purposes of the goats and warning visitors against interference eliminates the possibility that a vandal unwittingly set the goats free.

On Oct. 8, Ann and Larry Cihanek deconstructed the electric fence on Marist property that secured the animals, marking the definitive end to the project.

“It would be imprudent to bring them back,” Larry Cihanek said, following the fence removal. Currently, the goats are home at Green Goats farm in Rhinebeck. As grazing is consistent with seasonal growth, the goats working season is winding down. Of their 115 goat herd, just 38 goats are currently contracted out, currently grazing in Connecticut. The goats’ fall and winter diet will be hay and grain, Larry said.

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