ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The old-fashioned way to save endangered species is to build a fence around them and keep people and farm animals away. But that method has been turned upside down in New York's Hudson River Valley. There, domestic cows and goats are trotting to the rescue of a cute brown turtle on the federal endangered species list.
NPR's John Nielsen saw it with his own eyes in a swamp about 100 miles north of New York City.
JOHN NIELSEN: The swamps that hold the last of New York's wild bogs are sunny, mushy places, full of low green plants and waist-deep mud pits. Watch your step, says Jason Tesauro. But it's too late.
Mr. JASON TESAURO (Zoologist, Environmental Defense Fund): Down there.
NIELSEN: You know, I'm glad I brought that extra pair of pants.
Tesauro works for the Environmental Defense Fund. He says the mud pit I am now crawling out of is connected to a mass of hidden streams that bog turtles use like freeways. Then, he pulls exhibit A out of a mud puddle.
Mr. TESAURO: This is the female we always find at this site.
NIELSEN: An adult bog turtle rests in the palm of Tesauro's hand, mild-mannered, he observes, as the head re-emerges from the 3-inch shell.
Mr. TESAURO: So that's as big as they get. You can see she has an orange neck patch.
Mr. TESAURO: It's sort of diagnostic. And she's old, you can tell her age by how worn the top of her shell is.
NIELSEN: Oh, okay. Yeah, looks like somebody's been sanding that thing down.
Mr. TESAURO: That's right, that's the abrasives in the soil. So we'll release her and take a little walk.
NIELSEN: Tesauro says it's likely that bog turtles can live for more than 80 years in sunny swamps like this one. The problem is that many of these swamps have been invaded by a giant foreign weed that dries the soil out and steals the sunlight. It's known as phragmites, and it forms dense thickets like the one we've just walked into. Bog turtles will not live in these things, he says. Also, they grow very quickly.
Mr. TESAURO: And since I've been working here almost five years, it used to be moving, I don't know, a good 10 feet a year.
NIELSEN: Mow these thickets down and they pop right back up again. On the other hand, Tesauro rarely sees them in well-grazed pastures, which helps explain why there is a tractor-trailer full of goats parked on the far side of the thicket we've just passed through. As we watch, the trailer's doors are opened and the goats fly past us, straight into the foreign phrag patch.
Mr. JOHN ADDRIZZO (Owner, New York State Meat Goat Associates): And the bogs -they'll live.
NIELSEN: John Addrizzo, the owner of a company called New York State Meat Goat Associates, drove his trailer up from New York City. He says those goats will eat all of the plants they can find out there in the swamp - he calls it browse - and then go looking for more.
Mr. ADDRIZZO: They love browse. Goats prefer browse than anything else. So what happens is they'll eat most of the browse and then when starts to die down, they'll start to girdle the tree, they bite around the edge.
NIELSEN: And just kill them?
Mr. ADDRIZZO: And it girdles it, yeah.
NIELSEN: Addrizzo says the thought of using goats to save endangered turtles used to seem ridiculous to him. Then the U.S. Department of Agriculture started paying him to do just that. Now, it seems like a crazy plan that just might work.
Mr. ADDRIZZO: It's a unique project. Plus, they fertilize the area, so there's a little give and take.
NIELSEN: The reason it might work, according to Tesauro, is that the native plants devoured by these goats tend to bounce back in a hurry, but the big phragmites thickets just can't survive the constant grazing.
Mr. TESAURO: So they will knock down all that litter, all the dead stuff, and all the standing biomass within a season. If we came back two months from now, two and a half months, we could stand here and see the back line of that fence where we just walked…
NIELSEN: And we can't see any of it.
Mr. TESAURO: …rather than that impenetrable thicket, yeah.
NIELSEN: Actually, we didn't have to wait two months to see those changes. They were on display inside the fenced-in swamp just a few miles up the road. A year ago, the place inside this gate was one big, dried-out weed patch, says Tesauro. Now, thanks to a herd of hungry livestock, it is once again a sunny swamp. Tesauro says the rare bog turtles are returning to the swamp and laying eggs on dried-out dirt mounds, like the one right in front of us.
Mr. TESAURO: The turtles actually said, hey, this is pretty nice nesting habitat.
NIELSEN: Oh yeah. Look at that.
Mr. TESAURO: So, you know…
NIELSEN: A teeny-weeny little mess.
Mr. TESAURO: That's right. It had about four eggs, and these are all hatched.
NIELSEN: So, it's working.
Mr. TESAURO: Yeah. Yeah, we're doing good here for sure.
NIELSEN: Tesauro says this swamp was cleared by local dairy cattle and not goats shipped up from New York City. When the federal funds used to pay for the goats run out in a few years, he hopes to use the cattle instead. Whether that will happen will depend on whether the small farmers that own these cattle stick around, he says. These days, more and more of them are selling their farms to rich folks moving up from New York City.
John Nielsen, NPR News.