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Rumors of Ruminants

Rumors of Ruminants

Goats are ruminants, so their stomachs can handle a diet that includes pesky, invasive plants like the buckthorn taking over campus. (Photo Credit: The Munch Bunch)

Like any other campus residents, the ones arriving this May have names, identification, and an Instagram account. But while Bethel’s humans enjoy the buffet-style meals in the Monson Dining Center, this pack of Royals will have just one key thing on the menu during their stay on campus: buckthorn.

The rumors are true. A herd of 20 goats arrive on campus this month, setting up shop on about 4.5 fenced acres between Lissner Hall and Chalberg Hall. Their mission? To eat the invasive plant that’s been giving the Bethel community headaches for decades while providing research opportunities and lessons on sustainability along the way.

The initiative has been in the works for years, and the idea of employing ruminants—even-toed, ungulate mammals that chew cud—to eat undergrowth is gaining steam nationally. After it was seriously considered, one of the biggest challenges, according to Professor and Co-chair of Biological Sciences Jeff Port, was actually finding goats to come to campus. Because Bethel doesn’t have the space or staffing to keep goats year-round, they wanted to work with one of a small but growing number of third-party vendors who rent out goats for the specific purpose of controlling invasive plants. And this year’s unseasonably late snow meant plants stayed dormant longer and the growing (and eating) season will be shorter—and many companies were already booked.

Enter The Munch Bunch, a St. Croix Falls-based goat-for-hire company that will set up charged fencing on campus, drop off a herd, and check in on them for a period in May and again in August. It’s a pilot program aimed at furthering the battle against buckthorn, which was first brought to the area as an ornamental shrub in the 1930s and banned in the 1990s, but not before irreparable damage had been done on the local ecosystem. Biology students have done quantitative research on campus over time, and they estimate that 90% of brush and trees under 20 feet tall is buckthorn, meaning all native tree species have been edged out.

“We’re in Arden Hills. Trees are the very namesake of our area,” says Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Paula Soneral, who has worked with students to monitor tree populations and the growth patterns of specific trees over time. She says this new initiative is indicative of the Bethel community’s attention to its campus and desire to make a positive impact on the environment. Fighting buckthorn is one way to do that. “We want to be a leader in the community—to innovate and advocate on behalf of stewardship.”

The student group Creation Restoration has partnered with the biology department, Campus Ministries, Student Life, and Bethel’s grounds crew to manually remove the plant and replace it with native species. Herbicide is routinely applied in spring. The grounds crew is looking into specialized skid steer-mounted brush-cutters, and bouts with a chainsaw are frequent.

“There’s no single solution. It’s the combination of all these things that will hopefully make a difference,” says Port, who adds that the issue is nothing new. The plant was already a huge problem when he joined the faculty in 2001. Because the student body changes every few years, his team relies on Creation Restoration to help spread the word about removal efforts—and the philosophy of sustainable creation care that’s behind them. “This is a tool in the toolbox of things we can do to get rid of buckthorn without chemicals. It’s an opportunity to introduce students to scientific concepts, too.”

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Sara Wyse has students looking into the potential to ferment buckthorn for biofuel, an idea that Soneral developed. Her class distilled the plant into ethanol and launched a bottle rocket with it—studying which parts of the plant were most effective and whether there was an optimal window to harvest and process the plant.

“It’s not just about finding out if it’s possible, but also if it’s economically viable. And even if it’s not, is it still worth it?” asks Wyse. “We have very diverse perspectives in class, but students have such a willingness to engage with deep, ethical questions.”

When goats arrive, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Amy Dykstra and environmental science major Jess Lillie ʼ19 will conduct a senior summer research project analyzing the impact of goat browsing. They’ll compare the goats’ pen with a control area—with similar conditions and square footage—and quantify the impact of goats on the ecosystem. Fall Integrative Biology classes will specifically look at how the presence or absence of buckthorn—and, ahem, goat feces—impacts the microbial community in soils.

“We’re called in Genesis to be stewards of the garden. Not just the Garden of Eden, but creation and the beautiful campus we have here,” says Port. “I believe we—humans—have created the problem. We moved buckthorn here from its native habitat, and it has very few natural predators. We need to help restore the natural function of our ecosystem, and this is just one, fun way we can do that.”

Find out more about Creation Restoration or contact Professor Jeff Port to visit, volunteer, or sponsor Bethel’s campus goats.