Tenn. city finds 4-legged solution to kudzu invasion

The Baltimore Sun

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Summer is settling onto Missionary Ridge, which overlooks this southeast Tennessee city. Swallows glide on the warm breeze rustling the hackberry trees, kudzu vines sprout along the hillside, and the goats are back at work.

Chattanooga's goats have become unofficial city mascots since the Public Works Department decided last year to let them roam a city-owned section of the ridge to nibble on the kudzu, the fast-growing vine that throttles many a Southern landscape.

The goats and the project's tragicomic turns have created headlines, inspired a folk ballad and invoked more than their share of goat-themed chuckles.

"Usually, in dealing with this, you've got to get people past the laugh factor," said Jerry Jeansonne, a city forestry inspector who calls himself "goat dude."

Despite the humorous overtones, the program is an environmentally conscious effort to grapple with a significant problem in Chattanooga and the South.

Kudzu, which is native to Asia, was introduced in the United States in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It arrived in the South several years later, becoming a popular ornamental vine, then a forage and erosion-control crop. In the Great Depression, the federal government paid farmers to plant it.

First called "the miracle vine," kudzu came to be known as "the vine that ate the South." It grows a foot a day, smothering flora, swallowing houses and blanketing the landscape.

Embedded in the South, parts of Oklahoma and Texas, and some Northern states, kudzu can be found on at least a million acres of federal forest land and probably millions of more acres of private land, said James H. Miller, a research ecologist for the Forest Service.

Though not the worst invasive plant species, "kudzu is probably the most recognized invasive plant in the world," Miller said.

On Missionary Ridge, which bisects Chattanooga and where homes command stunning views of the valley below, the battle with kudzu is constant. Of particular concern for the city were vines draped over the mouth of the McCallie Tunnel, which cuts through the ridge.

Enter the goats. Jeansonne, after reading an article on the subject, persuaded city officials to hire a local farmer to graze his herd above the tunnel. When the farmer released the herd last fall, the experiment took some unexpected turns.

Pranksters put up "goats working" signs. City officials took them down, with stern words. Guard donkeys accompanying the herd earned more guffaws and proved ineffective when dogs attacked, killing two goats and mauling a third. This year, llamas replaced the donkeys.

There have been the logistical problems of goat-proof fences, gawkers and a live electric wire. Jeansonne roped a goat that escaped and hauled it back to the pen. But the headaches have been worth it, he said.

Walking a fence line, he held one hand high to show the height of the kudzu before the herd was released. The vines are gone now from the tunnel and the hillside above, and grass has been planed in some areas.

"It was kudzu up to an elephant's eye," Jeansonne said.

The drama of the goats inspired songwriter Randy Mitchell to write "Ode to Billy Goats." A disc jockey for a local country radio station said the song, which ends with a chorus of bleating, was requested daily for weeks last fall.

"I couldn't resist it," Mitchell said. "It was just screaming to have a song written about it."

The city plans to use goats to clear the tunnel's east entrance, and recently officials sponsored a four-day academy for farmers, hoping to stimulate a micro-industry of kudzu-fighting herds-for-hire.

Chattanooga is not the only city to seek a four-legged alternative to herbicides. For several years, Tallahassee, Fla., fought kudzu with sheep. Spartanburg, S.C., tried using goats but stopped after they were stolen.

Tina Price, who has lived next to the city land for nearly 25 years, said she used to hack a path through the kudzu as she left her house in the morning. Vines would envelop the porch and curl up to the roof.

Price and her husband arranged to let the goats graze on their property. The herd goes to work at night, and now the hillside is vine-free.

"I love this area, and it's just always been a problem everywhere I've ever been," Price said. "I guess somebody got their head together and decided what to do. It's working beautifully."

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