ROAN MOUNTAIN — The nearest wild mountain goats live 1,500 miles away in the Rocky Mountains, but one North Carolina peak can lay claim to its own mountain goats.
A herd of domestic Angora goats is spending the summer on Jane Bald, browsing vegetation within a wire-fence paddock next to the Appalachian Trail.
The goats have become a star attraction for hikers passing over the 5,807-foot-high peak. They stop to gaze at the curly-haired animals as they nibble through patches of Canada blackberry and filmy angelica.
Botanist Jamey Donaldson oversees the 27 goats and regularly fields questions from curious passersby as to what the billies and nannies are doing on this remote mountain 15 miles north of Bakersville. The goats, like flatland tourists seeking cooler climes, summer from mid-June to mid-September on what are known as the Roan Mountain Highlands.
(People) want to know where the goats are and when theyre coming, Donaldson said in July. Sometimes theyre hidden, lying under leafy shrubs chewing their cuds.
The goats are part of an experimental project to restore Jane Bald and other grassy balds to a more natural state by knocking back invading trees and shrubs. Once nearly treeless, the imperiled balds give hikers grandstand views into a foreground of verdant valleys and a backdrop of bluish-gray mountains.
Hiker Dale Cornett of Boone recently watched the goats chow down. This is a great idea in my opinion, he said. What better animal to do this.
Jane Bald is one of a series of mile-high-plus, dome-shaped summits that stretch along the North Carolina-Tennessee line for 8 roller-coaster miles. From Carvers Gap, elevation 5,512 feet, where N.C. 261 crosses into Tennessee, the Appalachian Trail links Round Bald, Jane Bald, Little Hump Mountain and Hump Mountain. Just beyond Jane Bald, a short spur trail leads to Grassy Ridge Bald, the highest of the five mountains at 6,160 feet.
Backpackers can tent out or stay at two trail shelters, Stan Murray (3.3 miles) and Overmountain at Yellow Mountain Gap (5 miles).
So how did the grasslands come about when thick forests cover most Southern Appalachian mountains?
Its a question thats puzzled biologists for decades. Some 90 historic grass or heath balds can be found in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Some have surmised theyre remnant pastures hewed out by early settlers or hunting grounds created by Indians. A growing belief now is that theyre ancient ecosystems dating back thousands of years.
In 1999, Peter Weigl of Wake Forest University and Travis Knowles of Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., put forward the idea that the balds are relicts of the last Ice Age that ended about 12,000 years ago. Heres their hypothesis. The harsh cold promoted tundra plants on high-elevation peaks in the Southern Appalachians. Large grazers such as mammoths cropped the balds until the animals went extinct 10,000 years ago. As the climate warmed, bison and elk moved in, maintaining the balds by grazing.
Explorers took note of the grasslands. Elisha Mitchell, for whom Mount Mitchell is named, in 1836 described the Roan Highlands as a vast meadow ... without a tree to obstruct the prospect; where a person may gallop his horse for a mile or two, with Carolina at his feet on one side, and Tennessee on the other. ...
When settlers came in the 1800s, they hunted out bison and elk and put sheep and cattle on what appeared to be mountaintop pastures. Livestock grazing ceased after the balds became part of Pisgah and Cherokee national forests and woody plants began snuffing out grasses like flattened oat grass and Pennsylvania sedge. The U.S. Forest Service later adopted a policy of managing the balds to perpetuate their grassy character.
The goats are one of four tools used to beat back encroaching mountain ash, blackberry and rhododendron. The others are mechanical mowing (Round Bald), lopper-wielding volunteers (Grassy Ridge) and African long-horned cattle (Hump Mountain).
Under the Baa-tany Goat Project, the mohair munchers first came to Jane Bald in 2008. The project is sponsored by a partnership of conservation groups and public agencies. Money from the sale of N.C. Appalachian Trail specialty license plates has helped pay expenses.
For the goats, its a moveable feast. They stay within a four-foot-high, solar-powered electric fence that can be moved up and down the mountain. Two Great Pyrenees guard dogs keep out predators such as black bears and coyotes. No attacks have been reported so far. Our biggest problem is deer running into the fence, Donaldson said, on their way out.
As the goats mow down invading plants, grasses fill in. The bottom line is that species diversity is increasing, Donaldson said. The goats are doing their job. He said a survey of plots show grasses and sedges made up 40% of the vegetation five years ago; last year it was 90%. Thats good news for the preservation of the panoramic vistas.
As Donaldson likes to quip, the goats are helping to keep Roan Mountains natural balds bald naturally.
Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.