Add one to the introduced species list: mountain goats in the La Sal Mountains

 

You’d think we’d have learned by now. But humans, it seems, just aren’t content to let nature well enough alone – especially when hunters with money are involved. That seems to be the main reason why the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources last week released 20 mountain goats into the La Sal Mountains just east of Moab. Mountain goats aren’t native to Utah and weren’t introduced until the 1960s, but today, there’s an estimated 2,000 of them roaming the state’s craggy heights. In some areas like the Tushar Mountains in central Utah, they’re doing so well that populations as of this summer were roughly double the target population of 125.

Thanks to the surplus, 50 goats were captured from the Tushars earlier this month with helicopters, net guns and slings. Of those, 20 were fitted with radio collars and released into the La Sals, while the rest went to bolster goat populations in South Dakota and elsewhere in Utah.

Fiddling with existing populations hasn’t proven nearly as controversial as introducing goats into the La Sals, a small mountain chain rising from redrock desert near the Colorado border. The Manti-La Sal National Forest includes one of only three alpine tundra environments on the Colorado Plateau, and while the lower reaches have long been home to free-ranging cattle that foul streams and deposit cow patties, the alpine area has remained relatively untouched.

Still, hunters have been pushing to put goats in the La Sals high country for years. Part of the reason the mountains managed to stay goat-free for so long is that the National Forest Service claims 2,380 acres of La Sal alpine zone as the Mount Peale Research Natural Area. The area is important to botanists studying climate change because it provides an opportunity to look at the effects of reduced snowpack and drought on endemic plants such as the La Sal daisy. For this reason and others, Forest Service officials publicly opposed the recent introduction of goats. But their concerns were voiced too late: The state wildlife board voted 4-2 in August to go ahead with the goat introduction. 

Photo courtesy Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

“Not every (wildlife) introduction ends up being a worst case scenario,” explains Southeast Utah’s Wildlife Program Manager Justin Shannon. Decades of study elsewhere in Utah show no negative impacts from goats on habitat and vegetation, he says. Plus, Shannon adds, goats brought to the La Sals will fill an ecological niche left by bighorn sheep, which were sighted in the area in the 1940s and ‘50s.

So why not just re-introduce bighorn sheep to the area? Domestic sheep graze at lower elevations in the La Sals, Shannon says, and when bighorn sheep come into contact with domestic sheep, the former often become diseased and die. “We haven’t seen that same relationship (with goats), so it’s a way to restore an ungulate to an alpine community.”

Hogwash, says Mary O’Brien, Utah Forests Program Director for the Grand Canyon Trust. She claims there’s no proof that bighorn sheep lived in the La Sals to begin with, and the reason for introducing goats comes down to one thing: hunting fees. This is yet another example of a Western wildlife agency that gets too much of its funding from ungulate-loving hunters at the expense of other wildlife, like butterflies and plants, she adds. She fears that the notoriously voracious goats will harm alpine plants and hinder scientists’ efforts to study climate change in the La Sals.

Tourism could be another beneficiary of the new goat introduction. A recent mountain goat viewing event in Beaver, Utah brought 2,000 tourists to the town of 2,500. “As an agency, if we have an opportunity to expand our wildlife populations for the hunting and viewing public,” we go for it, Shannon said.

Yet though state agencies seem happy to bring in new species if it means increased revenues, some feds have historically discouraged the practice. In 1977 President Carter signed an order restricting federal agencies from introducing species to lands they administer. A decade earlier, the U.S. Department of the Interior recommended that “no exotic species (be) placed in the vicinity of rare or uncommon native species” and no introduced grazers be introduced to federal lands where domestic livestock grazed.

Utah isn’t the first Western state to bypass such recommendations. Between 2005 and 2007, Colorado imported 91 moose to Grand Mesa in the western part of the state for hunting and wildlife viewing. Roger Shenkel, the local physician who hatched the plan, said that every time he drove by a particular bog, he felt like he ought to see a moose there. “People just love seeing moose,” he told the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. Never mind that moose hadn’t historically lived on Grand Mesa, or that some ranchers who grazed cattle there opposed the introduction: It simply looked like moose ought to be there. Today there are an estimated 380 moose on Grand Mesa.

Thousands of chukar and other non-native game fowl are also released each year across the West for upland bird hunters (the exotic ring-necked pheasant even became the state bird of South Dakota), and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is helping propagate Rocky Mountain elk in a number of Eastern states where Eastern elk once roamed – again to provide hunting opportunities.

In the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, state wildlife officials in 2005 tried to introduce non-native mountain goats to the National Scenic Area there. But issues stemming from goat over-population in Washington helped convince environmentalists in Oregon that the goats wouldn’t be a good fit: aggressive goats have been known to harass campers, shut down trails and damage alpine plants. One angry goat even killed a man. Environmental groups like Friends of the Columbia Gorge brought a lawsuit against the state Fish and Wildlife department, which eventually backed down. No goats have yet been introduced to the area.

In Utah’s La Sals, hunting will begin after the population there reaches 50 goats, probably within five or ten years, Shannon said, and hunters will pay between $413 to $1,518 a piece for a big game permit (for residents and non-residents, respectively). The target population for the La Sals is 200 goats. Though Utah wildlife officials say they’ll closely monitor the ecological impacts, it’s hard to believe that putting yet another species where it doesn’t belong won’t be without consequence.

But when people want to see a goat, they really want to see a goat. As state biologist Riley Peck said, the introduction “brings joy to a lot of people. It’s been a fantastic success as far as I’m concerned.”

Krista Langlois is an editorial intern at High Country News. Follow her @KristaLanglois2.

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