MISSOULA, Mont. - An 8-year experimental program using sheep to reduce weed infestations on Missoula's Mount Jumbo is winding down, and city officials say the program has been a resounding success.
Morgan Valliant, Conservation Land Manager for the City of Missoula, points to a series of pictures for proof.
The first one, taken in 2007, shows the east side of Mount Jumbo prior to the program. The hillside is colored with bright yellow flowers -- an invasive weed species called Leafy Spurge. The second picture, taken this year, shows the same hillside, mostly free of the weed.
On Thursday, Valliant and a few other city workers led a herd of 200 sheep through the lower Rattlesnake neighborhood and up Mount Jumbo for the program's final full year of grazing.
"It's kind of interesting to watch folks, because you're there quickly, and then you're gone," said Valliant, describing the event. "I think it feels better for the observers than the people who are participating. It's a little stressful; you want to make sure you keep the sheep off the interstate, and out of people's flower gardens. We explain a lot about the sheep program and that they're a working herd and helping us manage 4,000 habitats on the mountain and control noxious weeds."
The City of Missoula has 4,000 total acres of open space. Valliant says thanks to the sheep program most of the weed infestation on that space is contained to make room for native plants.
"To my knowledge, we're one of the first cities in our area that have done it on this scale, this close to an urban center," said Valliant. "There's been a lot of trial and error. We're finishing up a bunch of study plots and we've actually seen reductions in the weeds that we're trying to reduce, increases in the native plants that we want to keep, and we've really reached for a lot for goals that we've had at the beginning of the program."
Valliant says the city still plans to have some sheep on Mount Jumbo next year, but far fewer than are grazing there now. The city also will decrease the amount of time and area covered by the sheep.
It all means the rancher who owns the livestock will have some sheep that are out of a job.
If you have a large portion of land with an invasive weed problem, you can call the City of Missoula Conservation Land Office at 552-6263 for information about the sheep.