Park system looks to goats, fewer herbicides to fight invasive species

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is considering policies, from better record keeping to using goats, to improve its invasive species control and, ultimately, to reduce its use of potentially harmful chemicals in the city’s parks.

Park staff presented March 16 a new report on the board’s use of herbicides, insectides and fungicides in the city’s park system. While commissioners on the Operations & Environment Committee moved forward with several recommendations from staff, high on the board’s list is the elimination of glyphosate, an active ingredient in herbicides like Roundup, in neighborhood parks.

“Roundup has been considered safe in the past, however, recent research raises some concerns as to whether this is true. The Operations Committee chose to err on the side of safety for residents, our employees, and environment,” said At-Large Commissioner John Erwin, who also works as a horticultural science professor at the University of Minnesota, in a Facebook post. 

Erwin also put forth a new trial run to use goats to control invasive species like buckthorn and garlic mustard. The Park Board has looked into using hoofed animals like goats and sheep for decades, including four years ago when Erwin said the cost was too high to move forward. Now, at likely a much lower cost — $2,000, down from $75,000, Erwin said — the board is considering using goats in two areas later this year. At-Large Commissioner Annie Young and District 6 Commissioner Brad Bourn have touted the effort.

Commissioners have brought up an area with buckthorn off of Wirth Parkway in Theodore Wirth Park as a potential test site. The action, which still needs full board approval, will need a variance from the City Council due to a city ordinance excluding hoofed animals, but Erwin said he’s begun working with council members.

The report also detailed the board’s recent use of herbicide.

Assistant Superintendent Justin Long told commissioners that the board has reduced its use of liquid herbicide in neighborhood and regional parks by 98 percent.

Last year, staff applied 15 gallons of liquid herbicide on 51 acres — less than 1 percent of the 6,700-acre system — Long said. That’s down from 702 gallons applied to 400 acres in 2008.

The sharp decline in liquid herbicide follows a shift to solid, granular herbicide, which went from 0 to 1,100 pounds in the same 2008-2015 timeframe.

Minneapolis residents and their contractors also applied pre-approved herbicides to more than 1,000 ash and elm trees between 2014 and 2015, usually for emerald ash borer or Dutch elm disease.

Several speakers and activists spoke at the meeting to push commissioners to ban pesticides and/or make the city’s parks organic.

While Commissioner Scott Vreeland voiced his support for reducing chemical applications, he said pesticides make sense in some cases. He pointed to the fact that the Park Board used herbicide to thwart the spread of Brazilian waterweed, an aquatic invasive species, in Powderhorn Lake in 2007.

“I am going to say there are sometimes when a pesticide application is the best ecological management tool we have,” he said.

The system’s golf courses have seen much of the board’s herbicide treatments.

Last year, staff applied 2,556 pounds of solid herbicide and 598 gallons of liquid herbicide to golf courses. While levels of liquid herbicide have been more consistent with roughly 200-500 pounds applied annually in recent years, the Park Board’s use of solid herbicide has varied. Staff have applied as little as 500 pounds to as much as nearly 15,000 pounds annually in the past few years, though two courses, Hiawatha and Meadowbrook, haven’t been fully operational since the 2014 season due to flooding.

Commissioners on the committee also directed staff to begin a set of recommendations, including establishing an integrated pest management committee to review the board’s policies regarding invasive species control.

Long is also looking to add staff, such as parkkeepers and field staff, to step up weed removal to offset further reductions in pesticide use. Staff want to establish a new record keeping system to keep track of herbicide use data, which is shared with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.