First plan of attack on Wichita park with thick brush and poison ivy: Goats

The city of Wichita plans to unleash up to 130 goats on a city park for two weeks to test whether they’re a long-term, eco-friendly way to clear thick brush and poison ivy without using heavy equipment or chemical spray.

The goats are part of a multi-phase project aimed at cleaning up an area of Sim Park that connects the new city-backed River Trail Village patio home development to the city’s attractions along the river — Botanica, Old Cowtown, the Wichita Art Museum, the Mid-America All Indian Museum and the Keeper of the Plains.

“We’re looking over at Riverside, right next to Sim Golf Course where we have a lot of vegetation and an area that has a lot of homeless encampments — or had some. They just removed them all,” Troy Houtman, director of parks and recreation, told the Wichita Park Board in April.

“The idea is the goats will get the bushes and all the grass, all the low-hanging branches and kind of clear it and lift it up a little bit so we can actually see in there a little bit more. That’s just one part of the phase of cleaning it out,” Houtman said. “Next, it would be actually taking out some of all the fallen trees, all the large branches that are on the ground. That’s going to be a whole other phase.”

The goat phase is estimated to cost the city $5,000.

Rex Rutledge, owner of Restoration Grazing LLC, acknowledged that his services are a bit more pricey than contractors who use weedeaters and mowers. But he said his goats are worth it.

“I try to show people that goats are fun,” Rutledge said. “You’d rather see goats out on the hillside than some landscaper guys. At least I would.”

Rutledge said his goats could start clearing 5 acres of brush at Sim Park in June or July. His herd could take 10 to 14 days to finish their work. Sections of the park will be fenced off with an electrified net that keeps the goats in and any potential predators out. He said he is charging a bit more than he would for a private property because of the perils of the “extremely public” area where his goats will be working.

Rutledge said he will post signs around the fence to deter people from getting too close and to explain what the goats are doing.

“There will be days that I’m out there that I encourage people to come by and I will be able to turn the fence off, and if someone wants to get in there with me and check out the goats a little bit, I encourage that.

“But they’re not pets,” Rutledge said. “They don’t like to be touched. They’re not cuddly animals. As cute as these goats look, they would rather you not touch them. I’m around them for hours every day; they still don’t let me touch them. If I have to catch one, I actually have to catch it.”

Rutledge said the electric fence is strong enough to keep the goats in the enclosure but not strong enough to seriously harm children or pets.

“You’re not going to have permanent damage or have to go to the hospital or anything if you got shocked by it,” he said. “It would make a little kid cry, but it’s not going to have any long-lasting effects on them.”

Rutledge is hoping the pilot project leads to more work for his goats with the city of Wichita. It’s his first contract with a city.

“There’s a lot of places where this works,” he told the City Council in March. “It can be vacant city lots that are being inundated with brush and vegetation to steep hillsides where it might be unsafe to deploy a tractor to go. The goats are great in settings like that, as well as on maybe steep embankments along creeks. Those are also places you wouldn’t want any sort of chemicals getting into our water supply.”

Rex Rutledge’s goat herd, which does business as Restoration Grazing LLC, clears poison ivy and other underbrush. Rutledge said this before and after photo of a poison ivy infested area shows what his goats are capable of doing in Wichita city parks.
Rex Rutledge’s goat herd, which does business as Restoration Grazing LLC, clears poison ivy and other underbrush. Rutledge said this before and after photo of a poison ivy infested area shows what his goats are capable of doing in Wichita city parks.

The goats will stay in Sim Park overnight, he said. He said he’s working with the city on a plan to keep them safe in a public, urban area. Dogs, coyotes and foxes are the main predators in the area, but Rutledge said the electric fence should keep them at bay. Moving the fenced area each day will help throw off the coyotes, which are typically cautious predators that like to develop a plan before attacking, he said.

“They’re not pets; they’re livestock,” Rutledge said. “I don’t want any goats that want to be babied and be given a barn to sleep in. That’s not really my style. I think that they should be able to fend for themselves out there, given all the right nutrition and forage available. That’s how I run my operation.”

The city hasn’t landed on an exact date for the goat herd’s arrival at Sim Park. Houtman, director of parks and recreation, said the city of Austin, Texas, had similar pilot project when he worked there in 2013.

“We’ll give it a try,” he said. “I’m always willing to try something new.”

“The benefits of doing so are to remove poison ivy, reduce fire danger, improve soil conditions, and allow water to penetrate the soil better which also helps support new tree growth,” Megan Lovely, spokesperson for the city, said in an email. “And after the vegetation and brush are cleared, staff can more easily remove downed branches and logs. Goats are also an eco-friendly way of accomplishing this work, and are delightfully more whimsical than a mower.”

Goats vs. humans

While city officials tout the goat project as a win for sustainability, park board members have kidded that the city should buy its own goat herd.

“We should have a releasing of the goats party,” Park Board President Chris Pumpelly suggested at the April meeting. “I’m serious. Like, now is the time, release the goats. Go.”

But not everyone is excited about the goats.

“I just think it’s another gimmick to reduce the city’s obligation to its employee groups, and I’m not thrilled about it,” Esau Freeman, a Wichita service employees union leader, said.

Freeman, who represents city workers who do mowing and trimming, said the money would be better spent on city staff.

“Instead, the city’s going to pay one guy, and he can go out and use animals as labor,” Freeman said. “If the guy wants to bring his goats in, and they want to eat the grass and poison ivy and stuff for free, that sounds like a pretty good deal. But, you know, for us to pay $5,000 to feed his animals doesn’t sound like the city’s very good at negotiating contracts.”

When it comes to substantial raises for city employees, Freeman said, the city claims it doesn’t have the money. But the city always seems to find a way to pay for expensive alternatives, he said, including the $5,000 goat contract and more than $140,000 spent in the past year on private contractors for homeless camp removals in city parks.

“I see the city coming to me when we go to negotiate in the next year and pulling out their pockets,” he said. “But you know, when they go and spend $6 million on pickleball courts but they can’t hire employees to do dangerous work at higher than $15 an hour, it seems to me that their priorities are a little bit mixed up.”

Rutledge said he’s not concerned that his service will hurt city workers or put anyone out of a job.

“I’m not in competition with a lawn mower or a tractor,” he said. “This is a completely different experience. So, no, I’m not worried about putting anybody out of work. There’s a lot more acres out there of brush to control than there are goats, so there’s always going to be someone calling for a lawn mower or a tractor or someone to spray chemicals.”

Lovely, the city spokesperson, said Wichita did part of the same area using a forestry department mower, chainsaws and brush cutters in 2019. The cost was $4,292, she said.

She said the city also took other factors into consideration when deciding to contract with Rutledge.

“There is a safety issue in the fact that we don’t have staff working in all the poison ivy,” Lovely said. “Goats have no problems consuming poison ivy. In that part of the park, the soil composition is very sandy, which means it is quite easy to get heavy equipment stuck.”

Freeman said he’s also concerned about the safety of the goats.

“While it may seem environmentally friendly to put goats in Sim Park . . . is the city going to do anything to protect the goats from the homeless encampments that may be around the areas? I feel like they might be putting some animals in some dangerous positions because the employees who have to pick up the homeless encampments develop scabies or have to come in contact with needles, things like that. And a goat is not going to have the knowledge or concern about any of those situations.”

Rutledge, who lives about 45-minutes east of Wichita in Beaumont, said the safety of his goats is a top priority. He started Restoration Grazing in March 2022, and has completed many projects on private properties across the state without incident.

He said the electric netting should solve most of the concerns about coyotes and dogs. And his goats are vaccinated against most common diseases.

“I don’t ever want to put my goats in a location where I think they could be harmed or have something bad happen to them that is unexpected on my end,” he said. “If there’s a piece of property that has 100 needles on it per square meter, that would probably be something I wouldn’t want to go in. And at that rate, the city has got bigger problems on their plate at that location than having overgrown brush.”

“To combat those sorts of obstacles, I always go out and do a thorough site visit before I agree to put my goats out there,” Rutledge said. “That protects me from getting myself and my goats into a bad situation and that protects the customer from me bringing the goats out there and the goats not meeting their expectations because maybe they had the rare plant the goats don’t like or there’s some variable at the property that makes it extremely difficult to get the job done.”

Rutledge said the city’s decision to use his goats will have more benefits than simply clearing vegetation.

“A lot of people hire me just solely for the service,” Rutledge said. “And then they have the goats out there and they complete the job, and they’re like, dang, this was just a lot of fun. They wind up thinking they’re more happy with just paying for the entertainment. The accomplished brush management goal was just the icing on top.”