North Cascades National Park

The Olympic Mountain Goats: End of an Era

After decades of debate, draft plans, and environmental assessments, the National Park Service (NPS) has decided to eliminate mountain goats from the Olympic National Park and the surrounding National Forest areas. They plan to employ their Record of Decision, Alternative D: a combination of relocation and lethal removal.

This means relocating at least 50% of the Olympic area mountain goats to the North Cascades. This will be accomplished by tranquilizing mountain goats and moving them to locations in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and lands owned by Seattle Public Utilities. The Olympic goats will be netted or tranquilized, then transported by helicopter or truck. The remaining goats will be liquidated by a combination of ground and aerial hunts.

This is expected to be a four-year effort, and it has drawn a lot of controversy.

In the 1980’s the NPS became aware of problems caused by mountain goats in the Olympics. The goats were blamed for the degradation of sensitive flora, especially moss and lichens, which were being stripped away in the drier areas of the park where they were least likely to recover. These mosses and lichens are part of the chain that encourages the growth of other sensitive plants in these high places.

Compounding the problem is the goats’ tendency to trample, forage, and wallow in sensitive areas. Soil disturbance affects many types of flora by changing their habitat and weakening or killing them. According to the NPS reports, the local Astragalus (milkvetch) plants have been devastated since the 1970’s and are on the brink of disappearing. It may seem excessive to eradicate mountain goats to save some plants, but the NPS is charged with preserving our National Parks intact, in perpetuity. The flora of the Olympics is native. The goats are not. To an agency tasked with preservation, the answer is clear: the “prime directive” must be upheld and the goats must go.

In addition to problems with the local flora, there were also increasing complaints of aggressive interactions with hikers and campers, often caused by the goats’ need for salt. Goats are known to paw the ground near campsites for salty urine goodness. They also loiter near campsites for access to sweaty backpacks and clothes. These negative interactions culminated in 2010 when hiker Robert Boardman was gored to death by an aggressive mountain goat near Hurricane Ridge.

According to the NPS, mountain goats are not native to the Olympics. Unlike the North Cascades, where exposed mineral deposits provide plenty of salt sources that mountain goats need, the Olympics are woefully short of open salt licks. As a result of this and other geographic factors, mountain goats never migrated naturally to the Olympics. Instead, they were introduced to these mountains in the 1920’s by hunters who wanted something big to shoot. Despite the sub-optimal resources, the goats flourished. This may have been due to the goats’ hardiness, and partly because some hunters, photographers, and well-meaning hikers left salt licks in the open to attract the goats.

The Olympic mountain goat population waxed and waned over the decades. Between 1973 and 1983, the population increased from around 400 to as many as 1200 individuals. By 1994 that number went as low as 300. The current population is estimated at around 725. There are various conclusions about these wildly swinging numbers, but it seems clear that the Olympic goat population faces challenges despite the lack of natural predators.

Every outdoor enthusiast gets a thrill from seeing mountain goats in the wild. No one wants to see mountain goats exiled and gunned down. This explains why the process has dragged on for decades and why the NPS has decided to move forward now. The park administration is sensitive to the wishes of their guests but sometimes they need to roll up their sleeves and get the dirty work done, regardless of how awful it is.

Not everyone is on board with this plan. Animal rights activists contend that the mountain goats might be native to the Olympics. They point to an 1896 report by National Geographic that claimed sightings of mountain goats in the Olympics.

There is scant scientific evidence to support this theory outside of this single report, and it has been largely dismissed by the NPS and research organizations like the Conservation Biology Institute. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that local hunters would have bothered to relocate mountain goats to the Olympics in the 1920’s if goats were already there.

Hinging goat policy on that one questionable National Geographic report has been judged to be  a dubious proposition, particularly when framed against the exhaustive report commissioned by the NPS that describes in great detail the length and breadth of the problems with the Olympic mountain goats.

Nonetheless, local activists claim that the science blaming the goats is flawed, that the flora destruction is exacerbated by other factors, like other fauna, climate change, weathering, and erosion. They also feel that the problems with human interactions seem little different from those experienced with any other high country creatures. They see no need to remove the goats, though their concerns dwell primarily on the planned hunt rather than the somewhat friendlier relocation. They aren’t alone. Local citizens have mobilized resistance to the goat liquidation since it was first proposed in the 1980’s. These local citizens have animal rights organizations and the occasional concerned politician on their side.

When all is said and done, the argument for removal and eradication hinges on three fundamental conclusions. Defenders of the goats have argued for decades that the three core pillars of the goat question are not settled science.

Pillar 1: The Olympic mountains goats are not native to the area.

Besides the aforementioned 1896 National Geographic article about mountain goats in the Olympics, some activists insist that mountain goats in some form once foraged in the Olympics. This assertion places a heavy burden on researchers to prove a negative. There is absolutely no biological evidence for native goats yet discovered, and the farther back in history one goes, the farther removed one becomes from the biota. Did some form of proto-goat or unknown sub-species once clamber over the rocky cliffs of the Olympics 10,000 years ago? And if so, was the ecology of the Olympics similar then to what it is now? These questions, and their answers, have little bearing on the current situation.

It is also asserted that there may have been contemporary native mountain goats in the Olympics prior to their forced introduction in the 1920’s, but neither the white settlers nor the native tribes had the skill to locate them. This again requires the counter-arguer to prove a negative when the burden of proof should be supplied by those making the positive claim. As far as we (“we” being the historic populations: settlers, natives, and scientists) know, there is no compelling evidence that mountain goats lived in the Olympics prior to 1925.

Pillar 2: The Olympic mountain goats are damaging sensitive flora in the Olympics.

Defenders of the goats question the science that has driven this primary pillar of the goat question. The most comprehensive refutation of the NPS claims is found in the 1998 book “White Goats, White Lies” by anthropology professor R. Lee Lyman. In it, Lyman carefully teases details from every aspect of the Olympic goat question. He has particular concerns about the exhaustive study by Bruce Moorhead, D. B. Houston and E. G. Schreiner that assembles the evidence in a lengthy report made public by the NPS.

While Lyman does not dispute the overall consensus that mountain goats are non-native to the Olympics and that the population of mountain goats causes some environmental impacts, he is skeptical of the neutrality of the NPS’s efforts. He rightly points out occasional reliance on inexact experiments and evidence gathering, and the dismissal of the unknowables. That is, we still do not have a complete historiography of the Olympics flora, nor the certainty that mountain goats are the sole culprits of all the described environmental degradation.

Lyman feels that the NPS had come to a conclusion (the goats must be eradicated) and then cherry-picked studies that confirm their conclusion while soft-pedaling or even dismissing those that raise uncertainty. He is particularly upset by the NPS tendency to refuse publication of some studies while trumpeting others, a hallmark of bad science.

Regardless, there remains compelling evidence that the goats are indeed harmful to the Olympic area biota. The published report from Schreiner et al. is, despite its limitations, a fairly accurate picture of the overall situation. It is a carefully researched collection of data from many sources designed to explore not only the goat question, but the limits of our data gathering efforts in the Olympics. We like to think modern science is faultless, but unless you’ve spent a decade trying to count goats or inspect folded plant stems, it’s hard to grasp the near-impossibility of compiling a complete picture. Nature is wild and she does not easily bend to our wishes.

Even the critic Lyman had to agree that the mountain goats of the Olympics were having an effect on the park. The actual breadth and depth of these effects were his primary quibbles. His criticisms stem from some of the methods by which the NPS studies were assembled, not that the conclusions were ill-founded. He is not one to brook political maneuverings in scientific pursuits.

In the end, the NPS is doing what we asked them to do: to keep our national parks in their current state, as well as can be managed, in perpetuity. I do not believe anyone in the NPS is delighting in the killing of Olympic mountain goats. Instead, I believe the NPS is seeing serious problems in the Olympics and they feel honor-bound to address them comprehensively.

If the goats are eradicated will all the problems disappear? Will this NPS decision be vindicated? It will take many decades to know for sure.

Pillar 3: The Olympic mountain goats are not integrating well with park visitors.

The NPS contends that unlike their cousins in the North Cascades, the Olympic area mountain goats have become increasingly troublesome in their interactions with humans. When Robert Boardman was killed by an Olympic mountain goat in 2010, it was revealed that the goat in question had been behaving aggressively since at least 2008. Park rangers had been “hazing” the mountain goats for some time, a practice that involves throwing rocks or shooting beanbags at goats that regularly traverse popular trails.

Hazing (also known as “aversive conditioning”) is a common, non-harmful technique to train goats to avoid human contact, but in the case of the killer goat it may have backfired. We don’t know for sure, but the NPS remains convinced that unlike their cousins in the North Cascades, the mountain goats of the Olympics have become bolder, more aggressive, and more dangerous. It may be due to their elevated need for our salt sources or their own curiosity and herd behaviors. Regardless: there are statistically more incidents with Olympic goats than Cascades goats.

Using salt blocks to tempt goats away from human visitors might help, but it would do nothing to address the EIS concerns about damage to the flora. We don’t know if transplanted Olympic goats will behave better when among their Cascade cousins, but doing nothing is not really an option.

The NPS looked at many solutions before embarking on Record of Decision, Alternative D. Public meetings recommended some alternatives to the planned liquidation, but none passed muster.

Reintroduction of gray wolves as predators was a non-starter. Mountain goats are actually agile escapees of wolf attacks and the wolves would be more likely to take down elk and deer. Public hunting is forbidden in the Olympic National Park, so that option was off the table. There is no approved contraceptive chemical for mountain goats, and staff felt that the effort required to isolate and spay the goats would be better spent relocating them permanently.

The friendly option of continuing to monitor and manage the goats was considered, but after decades of failed management efforts, the NPS has decided that the time had come to take action. With the goats removed from the Olympics, they hope to see positive results both inside the park and inside the North Cascades, where the relocated goats will bolster the local population and eventually create a stable population supported by the habitat.

I know better than most how majestic, how valuable, and how troublesome these shaggy white beasts can be (see sidebar). I sincerely wish there was an option to keep these great creatures in the Olympics. I am just as horrified and repulsed as anyone that we are resorting to gunning them down from helicopters and leaving their carcasses to rot in the snow and the rocks.

Like the short-sighted Victorian botanists who imported invasive species throughout Britain in the 19th century, our foolish decision to introduce mountain goats to the Olympics will end in tragedy. If there is anything positive to come of this, it should be our collective decision to never repeat this stupid and cruel activity. We should keep our all our pristine habitats native. In that, I understand why the NPS is going ahead with their plan. Nonetheless, it’s sad and it’s regrettable and it should never happen again.

Goat Attack?

As I prepared this story, I decided it would remiss of me to avoid mentioning that I have a personal history with mountain goats. In July 2003, I was attacked by mountain goats. I wasn’t injured, but it was an event that taught me respect for the creatures that we assume are our fluffy white friends of the high country.

It was a hot July weekend—I was camping in the Spray Park backcountry of Mount Rainier. At morning’s first light, I left my camp at the high edge of the meadows and began to climb the Flett Glacier.

Up on the glacier, I edged along Echo Rock, across the expanse of ice from my intended destination, Observation Rock. As I rested in the shadow of Echo Rock, I saw in the distance a herd of mountain goats. I had never seen a wild goat before, much less a herd of about fifteen. They ambled slowly toward me.

I took some photos with my primitive digital camera. The goats kept coming closer. The camera got holstered as the goats ambled unnervingly close to me. To my relief, they sidled right past me. Some of the shaggy males gave me a critical eye, but none of them head-butted me. Instead, they clambered up the scree of Echo Rock. Then their real plan unfolded…

The herd started kicking rocks at me. These were not innocent footfalls. These were purposeful efforts to rain large rocks down onto my head. I dodged left and right to avoid the rocks. I was tempted to back off, but it was clear that the biggest rocks were bouncing up near the tongue of the scree patch, high enough to hit me square in the head. If I stayed close to the scree, the rocks would bounce right over me.

So for a few minutes we played a game: the goats kicked down rocks, and I leaped left and right to avoid them, like a demented version of Space Invaders. After a few minutes of this game, the goats ceased their attack. They decided that the human interloper was not worth any more effort. The herd descended the scree, formed a line about 20 meters away from me, then casually marched up the glacier and out of sight.

I was glad to have avoided the rocks. I was unhurt and saw no reason to curtail my mission so I crossed the glacier to Observation Rock. Up on the rock I met two Irish tourists who were enjoying a hike around Rainier. They offered me tea and snacks.

The two Irishmen then asked dryly: “So, ye had a bit o’ goat trouble down there, did you?” and we all burst out laughing. They had seen the entire event, and like every other averted disaster, this was now a humorous event. Mixed in was a bit of nervous laughter on my part. It was funny, but there were moments of true terror as well.

Editor’s Update

As of mid-September, 2018 the goat relocation in the Olympics had begun with transportation by helicopter, truck and ferry. Read more in the Seattle Times.

Ted Rosen is a member of the Bellingham Greenways Advisory Committee and has been a champion of land conservation since his youth in the industrial wastelands of northern New Jersey. He enjoys writing, day hikes, photography, guitar, and the occasional pale ale.

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