Mountain goat eradication is a high-flying balancing act in Olympic National Park

In an effort to protect visitors and rare plants, the park is relocating the hoofed invaders.

 

Derrick Halsey, clutches a mountain goat kid as they land at the staging area for goat relocation. Halsey is one of the helicopter team members known as a “mugger” who is dropped off as close as possible to animals who are netted or sedated from the air, and prepares them for flight.

In early July, the loud whirring of a helicopter punctured the quiet of Washington’s Olympic National Park as wildlife specialists scoured meadows, forests, ridgelines and mountaintops for flashes of white fuzz: mountain goats. The cherry-red aircraft kicked up dirt and debris as it lowered two goats, dangling in slings, toward a waiting truck, their feet bound and their vision obscured by blue blindfolds. During a brief landing, one of the specialists — commonly known as “muggers” — stepped out, with a kid no more than 6 weeks old calmly cradled in his arms. 

It sounds like a dramatic scene from a wilderness reality show, but it’s not: It was just another day in an extensive effort to eliminate mountain goats from the Olympics — where they are not native, damage endemic plants and even killed a person — and hand some over to Washington state to boost populations in the North Cascades Range, where mountain goats have declined after decades of overhunting. The project — which cost more than half a million dollars just this year — illustrates the lengths to which national and state agencies are willing to go to restore a single strand in the complex web of these human-altered ecosystems.

Outdoor recreationists are generally excited to see mountain goats in the Olympics. They’re more majestic than marmots and pikas and other alpine creatures, and less terrifying than bears. A few days before the start of this year’s relocation effort, a man posted on a Facebook group for hikers, saying he wanted to see the mountain goats before they got moved. When I asked why, he replied, “The goats represent the wild in Mother Nature.” 

But mountain goats are not native to Olympic National Park: Hunters from Alaska introduced about a dozen of them in the 1920s. At one point, the population ballooned to over 1,000, causing “ecological mayhem,” as they grazed on rare alpine plants and eroded the landscape, said Patti Happe, the wildlife branch chief for the park. Before the translocations began, there were about 725 goats on the Olympic Peninsula.

Not only have they destroyed native plants, but mountain goats have also become aggressive after growing too accustomed to humans: In 2010, a male goat mauled and killed a 63-year-old man hiking near Hurricane Ridge. The goats have become habituated to people and are drawn to them partly because humans provide something the animals need — salt. Olympic National Park lacks the natural salt deposits that would otherwise sustain the goats, leaving them dependent on the makeshift saltlicks that hikers produce when they pee on the trails. 

To keep humans safe and restore balance in mountain goat populations, wildlife biologists decided to physically relocate the Olympic Peninsula goats, starting with 115 translocations last year. The animals were all radio-collared and ear-tagged so they can be identified and tracked in their new environs. Approximately 70% of adults and half the children survived the first year — which is within the natural range of survival, said Jace Taylor, a wildlife biologist not involved in the Olympic project who has overseen mountain goat translocations in Utah.

It’s still too early to say whether the project is achieving wildlife managers’ larger goals, in part because scientists don’t yet know if the relocated goats are breeding in their new home. Happe said the project will be a success if those moved to the North Cascades help boost populations there, and if goats in the Olympics are completely eradicated. Unfortunately, many mountain goats evade capture; one woman involved in the project described them as “escape artists.” That means the majority of the Olympic goats will be killed after the translocations are over. In addition, some animals have died during capture or in transit.

And some of the relocated goats may already be accustomed to humans, which could endanger hikers in the North Cascades. I recently saw a sign there warning people of the dangers of salt-craving mountain goats. It’s not easy to reverse habituated behaviors, says Richard Harris, a wildlife manager at Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife overseeing the translocations. Perhaps over time, if human visitors leave them alone and urinate in locations the goats can’t reach, their degree of habituation might decay, ultimately benefiting both species. Still, “all wild animals are potentially dangerous to people,” Harris said. “People need to use their heads.”

But despite the expense — and the trauma for the goats — “rectifying the balance is something we should be doing when we have an opportunity to improve upon mistakes made by our predecessors,” says Harris. “To the degree that we can capture an animal and move it to a place where it’s native, give it a home, and allow it to return to its natural state within the North Cascades — I think that is worth spending money on.”

Wudan Yan is an independent journalist based in Seattle. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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