Sustainable Missoula: Some climate solutions come in a furry, four-legged package

Island Girl, one member of Oxbow’s goat herd, is pictured here after a successful afternoon of weed eating. Credit: Caroline Caldwell

Weeds love change. Whether it’s from agricultural soil disturbances, fires, floods or droughts, there is probably a weed waiting to slip in and establish a home amid the mayhem.

As climate change causes weather patterns to shift and temperatures to fluctuate, native species may become stressed and weakened, opening the space for these weedy opportunists to outcompete the tired locals.

Just the mention of knapweed, leafy spurge or Canadian thistle will immediately increase the heart rate of ranchers, environmentalists and outdoor recreationists, and developing ecologically conscious land management techniques to stymie weeds will become increasingly important given climate change.

One solution may come in a four-legged, endearingly mischievous and incredibly cute package: goats. 

Oxbow Cattle Company’s new goat division is a great example of an innovative solution in response to emerging issues. The unexpected thrill of watching a gaggle of goats race to gorge upon spurge patches, pluck the dead thistle heads from the thorny stalks, and nibble delicately at knapweed until they collapse into a midday siesta has completely altered Oxbow’s view of weed control.

Say goodbye to purchasing herbicides to target and broadcast spray all broadleaf species, spending days digging up thistle patches by hand or attempting to reseed with non-invasive grass varieties. These talkative weed-eaters actively choose noxious, high-protein weeds over grass. This low-impact solution benefits the land, soil and microbes through hoof action, fertilization and minimal pressure on key native species.

By setting up electric fences and charging them with solar power, our ability to intensively target heavily weeded grazing areas increases dramatically, and we minimize predator interaction with the non-lethal means of electric barriers. Oxbow anticipates growing the goat herd from fourteen to nearly 200 next fall, and there are exciting collaborations in store for the future. 

Oxbow and local leaders have begun conversations to expand the existing sheep grazing program to utilize goats on land that would have otherwise been sprayed repeatedly with herbicides, spreading appreciation for these fluffy weed machines. Sheep grazing has been used for years on Missoula’s open lands – the North Hills and Mount Jumbo – as an economical, chemical-free way to manage weeds and restore native plant growth.

These projects offer opportunities to increase learning and teaching opportunities for people interested in regenerative agriculture and livestock handling. For those less agriculturally inclined, Oxbow hopes to organize a few sessions of the increasingly popular goat yoga at a local brewery. Public-private partnerships such as these showcase the possibilities for using livestock and agriculture to curb the spread of weeds, adjust to the new normals of climate change, and achieve a greater environmental good in Missoula, all in an environmentally friendly and financially viable way. 

The ecological effects of climate change challenge all of us to find creative solutions (including stationing  floppy-eared, four-legged friends on the frontline of weed control), which is exactly what Missoula County, Climate Smart and the city of Missoula  are attempting to do as they jointly lead Missoula through the ins and outs of a climate resiliency planning process.

Over the past 18 months, Missoulians have come together to identify the vulnerabilities facing our community given climate change and generate possible solutions to address them, in sectors ranging from agriculture to buildings and land use to water infrastructure.

The proposed goals and action items of Missoula’s first climate adaptation plan will be available for additional public input in the upcoming months, including opportunities for community members to get involved in the implementation phase of the process.

Just as weeds’ ignorance of property lines demands community engagement and collaboration, so too do all aspects of building a more resilient community. We all need to ask ourselves where we can be a part of the solution, whether that’s growing herds to relay aspirations of goat greatness or participating in restoration projects.

Together, we can build a climate-ready Missoula that benefits all of us.

Caroline Caldwell is a Rancher at Oxbow Cattle Company and Caroline Lauer is Program Director at Climate Smart Missoula.  

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events

Wednesday, November 13. Missoula Chapter of Montana Conservation Voters annual gathering. Learn more about MCV’s local electoral and environmental work. Goodworks Ventures. 5:30. More info here.

Wednesday, November 13. Organize for our Outdoors. MT conservation groups will explain the Land & Water Conservation Fund & how citizens can work for it to be fully funded. Hosted by MontPIRG. UM’s University Center room 330, 6-8pm.

Wednesday, November 13. Join 350 Montana and the Sierra Club to learn more and comment on the Keystone XL Pipeline. 6:30 – 8:00pm, room 220 at the University Center, UM Campus. Info here.

Thursday, November 14. Climate Smart Missoula’s Monthly Meetup. Sustainable Communities from Missoula to Our Sister City Palmerston North New Zealand.  Imagine Nation, 5-7 pm. 

Tuesday, November 19. Zero Waste Workshop. Replace plastic with homemade reusable bees wax wrap with MUD. Home Resource Community Room, 1515 Wyoming St. 6 – 8pm. More info and tickets here.

Friday, November 29 & Saturday November 30. Write Climate Letters to the future in downtown Missoula for “Buy Nothing Day” and “Small Business Saturday”. Stay Tuned for details!

Wednesday, December 4. Workshop on Wildlife Friendly Gardens and Bird Feeders with MUD. Home Resource Community Room, 1515 Wyoming St. 6 – 8pm. More info and tickets here.

Friday, December 6. Clark Fork Coalition Holiday Party. All are welcome to join for free food, fun, and friends. Clark Fork Coalition Offices, 140 S 4th W St. 5 – 9pm. 

Friday, December 6. Five Valleys Land Trust Holiday Party. All are welcome. 120 Hickory St, 5pm. 

Friday, December 6. Sunrise Movement Climate Strike. Details to follow.

Thursday, December 12. Climate Smart Missoula’s Year End Celebration and Smarty Pants Awards. Details here.