Goat grazing in the East Bay Hills, by Martin Holden

I RECENTLY JOINED PARK DISTRICT’S FIRE CAPTAIN BRIAN CORDEIRO on a tour of some goat-grazing sites along the Stonewall Ridge Trail in the Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve. Captain Cordeiro is in charge of overseeing the goat-grazing program for the District from Castro Valley to Richmond

“Homeowners love the goats,” says Cordeiro. It’s trueGoats are efficient consumers of low, “flashy” fuels (grass and weeds), especially in areas that are steep and treacherous. However, many people, including myself, have now come to realize that goats can be detrimental. They eat ALL vegetation, including desirable, beneficial native plants and shrubs. They also churn up the soil, creating erosion and water-quality problems.

Laura Baker, Conservation Chair of the East Bay Chapter of the California Native Plant Society, has been a close observer of the goat grazing program for a long time. Speaking as a private citizen, she reflected the views of many environmentalists. “As currently practiced, goat grazing to reduce fuels in the East Bay Hills is simply wholesale biomass removal,” says Baker. “What goats do is damage—they’re like locusts with horns and hooves. They girdle trees and shrubs, trample soil, and defecate weed seed. They’re popular because they’re cheap: the agencies don’t have to pay for people trained to manage the resource.”

While goat herders like Goats R Us (see picture below) usually charge about $700 per acre, they charge the District less than half that amount in return for being allowed to over-winter their livestock on District land. It’s a deal for both sides that’s too good to pass up. To improve the grazing program, Baker suggests requiring the grazing manager to securely enclose sensitive resources, to monitor the intensity and timing of grazing, and to ensure that weed invasions haven’t been triggered. She also thinks that the program should be under the oversight of the Rangeland Manager, who is responsible for the District’s other grazing programs. “What folks need to know is that in many instances there are better alternatives to goat grazing. To the District’s credit, these are mentioned in its recently released draft Vegetation Management Program. Other agencies, like the City of Oakland, also have to re-think their goat grazing programs and follow the District’s lead by creating an actual plan to manage vegetation for its native habitat value, not just its fuels component.”

After I showed Captain Cordeiro the oaks and toyon trees in the Claremont Canyon Preserve that had been girdled and killed by the goats, he decided to rotate the herds off the site for a year to let some of the vegetation recover. “I don’t like to see bare soil,” he said, but he added, “Goats are here to stay, but they are not going to increase any more.” That will come as welcome news to many.