'The goat ate my homework,' conservation management students say

Contact: Jeanne Baron
Photo of a line of students wearing gloves and protective eyewear and cutting brush with hand-held pruning saws as they work their way up a steep slope.

Students cut brush and do other site-preparation work earlier this fall on the humans and goats segment of BIOS 4970's savanna site.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Figuring out better ways to bring distressed plots of land back to their natural state is one goal behind a new course at Western Michigan University, and members of the public are invited to hear the latest thinking on the topic.

BIOS 4970, Biology, Conservation and Management of Natural Features, began this fall to test the efficacy of restoring land by methods that use humans only, goats only and a combination of humans and goats. Three distressed sites representing different presettlement vegetation types on and around the WMU campus serve as outdoor laboratories where these methods can be studied.

Some of the techniques being employed on those ecosystems will be discussed during a Biology, Conservation and Management of Natural Features Mini-Conference from 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 6, in D-132 Floyd Hall on WMU's Parkview campus in Kalamazoo. The conference is free and open to public but registrations are required by Dec. 1.

Conference description

The conference will feature talks by guest speakers as well as short presentations by BIOS 4970 students and be followed by a reception. The guest speakers, along with their discussion topics, will be:

  • Tyler Bassett, postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University, native and restored landscapes.
  • Ryan Koziatek, Great Lakes ecological management field director at the Kalamazoo Nature Center, prescribed fire in restoration plans.
  • Mitch Lettow, stewardship specialist at the Southwest Michigan land Conservancy, invasive species management on conservation lands from the nonprofit organization perspective.
  • Bill Schneider, president and owner of Wildtype Native Plant Nursery and Ecological Services, ecological management from a business perspective.

The conference is being organized by students in BIOS 4970 and their two co-instructors, Todd J. Barkman, professor of biological sciences, and Steve Keto, WMU's natural areas and preserves manager. It will serve as the final meeting day for students in the class. To register, send an email message to todd.barkman@wmich.edu or steve.keto@wmich.edu or call (269) 387-5610. For Parkview Campus maps and directions, visit wmich.edu/maps. Free parking will be available near Floyd Hall's east wing in Lot P2.

Outdoor Laboratories

BIOS 4970 is a six-hour weekly special investigations course with revolving topics. As a capstone course for seniors, it integrates a variety of biological concepts within a selected broad topic. The section that Barkman and Keto teach is intended to be offered every fall and be a rigorous scientific study that collects and analyzes land management data over a period of years.

"To do the study right, we needed to get students outdoors where they can methodically measure the effects of our restoration efforts," Barkman says. "The idea is to take land that has been disrupted by human activity and invasive species and test ways to bring it back to its natural state."

Photo of a perspiring student engulfed in tree branches that she has cut and is clearing away.

Student Sarah Meehan uses a lopper to prune branches at the savanna site.

One of the sites the students are working on is a savanna ecosystem. Owned by WMU, it starts behind the Stadium Drive Apartments and runs east along the south side of Stadium Drive. This area is hilly and overgrown with weeds, brush and invasive vegetation such as oriental bittersweet and common buckthorn. There in 2010, WMU discovered dwarf hackberry trees—trees of special concern in Michigan.

The other WMU-owned site is an oak-hickory forest ecosystem that surrounds WMU's Goldsworth Valley residence halls. It contains many native wildflowers that were more common before the growth of WMU and Kalamazoo and are becoming increasingly rare in Michigan. This site also contains some of the older significant trees on campus.

The third site is owned by the Michigan Department of Transportation and located near the intersection of Stadium Drive and Howard Street. It is a remnant 1800s prairie ecosystem with rosinweed, a native wildflower species that Michigan considers threatened.

Getting the course off the ground

Barkman says the instructors experienced a significant learning curve in just getting the course off the ground. In addition to securing permission to use the MDOT parcel, the instructors had to meet Michigan's strict rules for protecting state-owned land and preserving native threatened plant species. That included obtaining permission from both local and state-level MDOT professionals, as well as state archeologists and endangered species specialists.

Photo of a goat chewing off leaves from a bush.

People using tools and goats using teeth are working side by side to clear brush in one area.

There was less of a learning curve with bringing in goats for the animal-only portion of the study.

Keto notes that WMU's landscape services did a one-week pilot project in 2016 with a herd from Munchers on Hooves and had it back this year for the entire summer to browse on more than 17 acres. The same goats were used for BIOS 4970, and their farmer-owner met on site with students to share his expertise.

"Through our previous projects, we learned that goats do a great job of clearing brush and invasive vegetation, despite uneven terrain, noxious weeds and bugs. So they're an environmentally friendly land management tool compared to using large machines, chemicals and other traditional methods," Keto says. "But how do you quantify the benefits of incorporating animals into a land management program? When and where are they best used? What are the pros and cons of such a biological tool? These are some of the things we hope to learn through our new class."

Student- and employer-driven learning

Barkman says he and Keto started the class at the behest of former student volunteers and independent study students the two were working with on conservation-related projects.

"Those former students suggested that we develop a formal course around this topic, so students were really the genesis of this," Barkman says. "And the class is timely. It's providing practical hands-on experience for students by taking theoretical concepts in biology and applying them to conservation."

He says many of today's employers are looking for graduates with such management-level skills as herbicide certification, geographic information system expertise, and experience with plant identification, inventory methods and propagation. These employers include civil engineering companies, state agencies, conservancy organizations and ecological restoration companies.

BIOS 4970 is still in its infancy, however, so WMU's first class is generating baseline data that will be used by future students and be a factor in their discoveries.

"The students are just beginning to collect data. We assessed the state of our three sites this fall and took initial steps to restore them. It will take several more years before we'll be able to definitively say how effective the methods we're testing are," Barkman says. "The plan is keep the class going for several years so we can accumulate data. The most value will be in about five years, when we can compare the Day One assessment of our plots with how healthy they are then. The legacy of this class will hopefully be healthier landscapes in and around campus as well as an improved understanding of how best to achieve habitat restoration in an effective and sustainable manner."

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit wmich.edu/news.