Can rocks and paintballs help humans and mountain goats coexist?

An alternative approach to wildlife management in the Olympic National Forest.

  • Mountain goats across the West, like these on Scotchman Peak in Idaho, left, often harass hikers in search of salt.

    Rich Landers/Spokesman Review
  • Biologist Kurt Aluzas is charged with teaching the animals in Olympic National Forest to keep away from humans.

    Brooke Jarvis
 

The trail up Mount Ellinor, a popular peak in the southeastern part of Washington's Olympic National Forest, gains 2,500 feet of elevation in just a mile and a half. The final push is a wheezy, you're-gonna-need-your-hands-for-this scramble up boulder fields and talus slopes buttressed by sharp ridges. It is a landscape better suited to mountain goats than humans.

And on a blue July day, with dozens of hikers out to see wildflowers, goats were on everyone's mind. One anxious woman, spotting U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Kurt Aluzas in uniform, skipped "hello." "How are the goats today?" she demanded. "Do we need a stick?" Aluzas repeated the advice he'd given every hiker: "If you need to, throw rocks at them."

Last summer, after reports of aggressive mountain goats forced the Forest Service to close the trail, Aluzas spent his days hiking up and down the mountain, hazing the animals to teach them to keep their distance. In addition to pitching rocks, he shot them with a paintball gun loaded with rainbow-colored pellets. Sometimes, he let loose a "banshee yell." He climbed the trail so often that he lost 10 pounds.

This year, Mount Ellinor stayed open, with Aluzas' less-frequent hazing supplemented by warning signs and two slingshot-wielding interns. He didn't bring his paintball gun when I hiked with him, but he carried a homemade noisemaker-slash-projectile: a pineapple juice can filled with pebbles. As we approached the summit, where goats often congregate, he laced his bear-spray holster onto his belt and filled his pockets with rocks.

Mountain goats may look placid, but their horns are sharp and their behavior unpredictable. Three years ago, in the popular Hurricane Ridge area of neighboring Olympic National Park, an aggressive billy gored a hiker in the thigh, then stood over him, keeping help away. The hiker bled to death. The incident reignited a complex, long-standing debate about how the two species can share these mountains. Aluzas' work is one answer.

More than 30 goats live on the high, horseshoe-shaped ridgeline that connects Ellinor with mounts Washington and Pershing. We saw more than a dozen, many accompanied by fleecy kids. Climbing nimbly up steep outcroppings, grazing in meadows, and bedded down in shady niches and snowfields, they looked right at home.

But mountain goats aren't native to the Olympics. A hunting club introduced a small group in the 1920s. Their population grew rapidly until the 1980s, reaching more than 1,000. The goats took a toll on rare native plants and fragile alpine areas, and as a result, Olympic National Park began to capture and relocate them. Hundreds were removed, but the effort was eventually abandoned as too costly and difficult. A park proposal in the 1990s to kill goats went nowhere due to low public support: Despite the distress goats cause humans and ecosystems, they are some of the Olympics' most visible "charismatic megafauna." Few people wanted to use taxpayer funds to gun them down from helicopters; some pointed out that humans, too, are a destructive exotic species. The goat issue, unresolved, receded into the background.

Then came the hiker's death, followed a year later by a census that estimated that the goat population had increased by 40 percent in the last seven years and could double by 2027. The mountain goat question – an ongoing study in unintended consequences – was back on the table.

There's been no renewed push to remove the goats; they're protected by practicality, inertia, and, even today, public opinion. And so the focus is on coexistence: learning to live together in a territory that doesn't quite belong to either species. Actual attacks are extremely rare. But after the fatal incident on Hurricane Ridge, people began to pay closer attention, and reports of hikers being stalked and feeling threatened increased.

That's where the rocks, paintballs and air horns come in. They're all tools for training animals not to engage in certain behaviors, an art known as "aversive conditioning." Aluzas wants the goats to see humans as the dominant species on the mountain, and to learn to keep their distance. He wants proximity to people to trigger cautious, rather than aggressive, behavior.

Success, however, will depend on goats overcoming a pre-existing association. Goats seek out humans because we provide, in our sweat and urine, something they desperately crave: salt. (There are no known natural salt licks in the Olympics.) In an analysis for its Mountain Goat Action Plan, Olympic National Park found that all of the reported "hazardous interactions" were in areas where goats have been habituated to human presence and associate us with salt.

"In bear country, they tell you to make noise – they'll hear you and stay away," Aluzas said. "Here, it's like the dinner call." In the Olympics and a number of other Western mountain ranges – Colorado's San Juans, Idaho's Scotchman Peaks – goats loiter near trails and often come uncomfortably close to hikers. According to anecdotal reports, they even try to lick up urine while people are still going about their business. There is evidence of goats leaving their usual high-altitude range to dig through soil near the Mount Ellinor trailhead, where many hikers pee before setting out. The Forest Service has since installed a bathroom there, experimented with setting up salt licks in areas far from trails, and tried to convince hikers to relieve themselves significantly off-trail.

Still, the hikers we met were plenty familiar with goats' salt-lust. One group recounted returning to a campsite on another Olympic trail to find a group of goats chewing on their sweaty hats, socks and pack straps. Another described an overnight at Lake of the Angels: "We had 12 of them in our campsite, just waiting for us to pee."

The salt issue, Aluzas said, is a good reminder to "be mindful that we're in a fragile environment, where even small actions have a trickle-down effect." He paused, noticed the pun, and groaned. "That wasn't intentional."

We sat for several hours on Mount Ellinor's jagged summit, amid clumps of goat fur snagged on the rocks, waiting to find out if the goats we saw below us would approach. They didn't. Aluzas peered through binoculars at a nanny and two kids bedded down a few hundred yards away. "This is great," he remarked. "Last year, they would have started coming right toward us. If they can just sit there and not feel the need to get closer – that's what we want." Olympic Forest Supervisor Reta Laford, who came along to see the new goat policy in action, nodded. "They can have that spot, and we can have this spot."

Still, Aluzas acknowledged that such deference isn't necessarily the result of his efforts. It can take years to condition an animal. "One incident is not going to change their whole worldview," he explained, "especially if they're used to getting something they really want."

Meanwhile, we contended with brazen chipmunks, accustomed to being fed by humans, scampering about the summit, peeking into backpacks. One ran across my hand and notepad as I wrote. Aluzas gently scolded me for not shooing it away, and used the opportunity to talk to picnicking hikers about the way our behavior affects wildlife. He encouraged them not to feed animals, to pee well off-trail, and to assert dominance over nuisance goats. The goal, he said, is "peaceful coexistence;" the methods used to achieve it, he admitted, are "ironic."

On the way down, we passed a nanny and kid just a few yards from the trail. They were too focused on eating flowers to pay us much attention. "She's just being a goat," Aluzas said, checking his rock stash before we slipped by, but holding fire. "She's being good." Still, he warned the next group of hikers to bring rocks, just in case.