A herd of goats coming to the rescue of a handful of imperiled turtles may sound like the plot of a Saturday morning children's cartoon show, but that's just what's happening in the Carroll County town of Hampstead.
The State Highway Administration has enlisted the help of about 40 goats to devour invasive plant species in wetlands along the path of the soon-to-open, 4.4-mile Hampstead Bypass to protect the habitat of the bog turtle - a species listed as threatened in Maryland.
State highway officials decided to give the goats a tryout as four-legged lawn mowers rather than to attack the unwanted vegetation with mechanical mowers that might have killed the diminutive reptiles or damaged their boggy habitat on the fringe of Hampstead. The goats - leased from a local farmer who prefers to remain anonymous - have been on the job for a week, and highway officials say that so far they seem to be up to the task.
Until now, the bog turtles have been getting all of the attention. Highway and environmental officials have spent years hashing out the details of the $85 million bypass, and finding ways for the road and the reptiles to co-exist. The site where the goats are employed was once right in the highway's path, but officials rerouted it to the ridgeline above to avoid the sensitive wetlands.
William L. Branch, a biologist with the highway agency's Office of Environmental Design, said the decision to use goats to swallow up vegetation at the site - which officials prefer not to identify specifically because of the threat of turtle-poaching for the exotic pet trade - was the result of collective brainstorming by state and federal officials on how to build the road without damaging the local turtle population.
Branch said the Hampstead experiment is Maryland's first use of goats in connection with a state road project. He said officials had heard about previous projects using goats to control vegetation in bog turtle habitats in New Jersey and Pennsylvania - two of the other states in the reptile's range.
If the goats do an exemplary job of clearing out such invasive species as multiflora rose and Japanese honeysuckle, their job may terminate with the end of growing season in late August, Branch said. If they've achieved only partial success, he said, they'll probably be brought back to finish the task next year.
Branch said that if the Hampstead experiment works, the goat strategy could "expand the toolbox" for highway planners facing environmental challenges in other locations.
"We're curious about how this will work but we don't have any plans to do this as the standard procedure," he said.
According to Branch, the wetlands that shelter the turtles make up a unique ecosystem that benefits from some light grazing.
Branch said officials discussed using cattle to graze the approximately 8-acre tract but decided the size differential between a 1,000-pound steer and a 4-inch turtle did not work in the reptile's favor.
The goats were on the job Tuesday at the highway agency's tract near the northern end of the bypass, which will divert traffic on now-clogged Route 30 around downtown Hampstead after it opens this summer. Most of the herd remained back in the brush, warily eyeballing a clutch of human visitors while munching away at the lush vegetation. But a pair of bolder billy goats strolled down to check out the intruders. One looked quizzically at a pair of bog turtles that biologists had found at the site -- but turned away after apparently concluding the reptiles were not goat food.
There was a time about a decade ago, Branch recalled, when it was openly suggested in a local newspaper editorial that the bog turtle might make a tasty soup.
Emotions in Carroll County have at times run high over the much-desired bypass, which has been under discussion for 20 to 30 years, and the turtle that has been seen as the main obstacle to building it. Highway and environmental officials have spent years figuring out how and where to build the bypass. Branch said building the road "took a couple more years than if the turtle was not here."
But he said reaction to the suggestion of bog turtle soup was not especially favorable and that the local consensus is people want their road and their turtle, too.
"They were certainly very pro-turtle but they were certainly also very pro-road," Branch said.
Upon meeting members of the species, it's hard to envision that anyone would want to throw them into a steaming tureen. The bog dweller is an unusually colorful turtle, with a distinctive splash of orange color on their necks, and a mixed orange and brown skin color under their shells. They are the smallest turtle species in North America, said Craig Patterson, a biologist with the state Department of Natural Resources.
Patterson said the turtle is found in the northern tier of four Maryland counties - Carroll, Baltimore, Harford and Cecil. Its northern range extends as far north as southern New England, and a separate population cluster - separated from its northern cousins by hundreds of miles - lives in the Carolinas and Georgia, he said.
Branch said he's happy with the collaboration that has allowed the bypass to be built while sparing the most critical turtle habitat. The road is expected to open this summer.
"It's been just a great experience for a lot of folks," he said.
The goats had no comment.