Mountain goats belong in mountains. But they don’t belong in the mountains of Olympic National Park, officials say.
Although the white-furred, black-horned animals look right at home on the Washington park’s stunning peaks, park officials refer to the mountain goats there as an exotic species, as well as a “nuisance.” They were introduced to the area in the 1920s, officials say, and have since gone on to destroy vegetation and erode soils. What’s more, they’ve become comfortable to the point of dangerous with park visitors, one of whom was fatally gored by a mountain goat in 2010.
So now goats are flying — plucked by helicopter off the terrain and placed into trucks, then a ferry, on a journey to a new home in a forest 100 miles away. After years of planning and public review, officials began capturing goats this week and relocating them to the North Cascades mountain range, where they’re native but in short supply.
The effort, Olympic National Park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum said in a statement last week, “will relieve issues with non-native mountain goats in the Olympics while bolstering depleted herds in the northern Cascades."
The strange sight — of soaring pairs of goats in blue blindfolds, their hoofs dangling above treetops — is the first stage of a plan aimed at removing at least 90 percent of Olympic’s mountain goat population of about 725, according to the Park Service plan. It anticipates that half the goats will be relocated, and that the remainder will eventually be killed with shotguns or high-powered rifles in an operation lasting three to five years.
The goats captured Tuesday were tagged and fitted with GPS collars, the Seattle Times reported, adding that at the end of it all, the animals “galloped from their crates dazed and somewhat bewildered by the ordeal and their new home.”
It’s not the first time park officials have sought to reduce the mountain goat population through evictions. More than 400 were captured and moved to other Western mountain ranges in the 1980s, and another 119 outside park were killed, according to the Park Service.
But the goats rebounded, doubling in number to about 625 between 2004 and 2016. If nothing is done, the Park Service says, the population could grow to 1,000 by 2023.
Doing nothing was one of four plans considered during a review process that began in 2014. That alternative, documents note, would have required foot patrols, area closures, goat hazing, some lethal removals and a lot of “preventing unacceptable mountain goat behavior.”
The bad behavior includes what federal and state officials describe as excessive boldness. Mountain goats seek out salt, and their native ranges include plenty of natural salt licks. But Olympic does not, and so some goats there have learned “to associate people as a source of salt through urine and sweat,” the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife says.
People charmed by the sight of furry ungulates on hiking paths sometimes hand-feed the goats, doubling the animals' pleasure by offering both food and salty, sweaty palms. Hikers also urinate on trailsides, providing another salt supply. Mountain goats conditioned to associate people with salt can become “insistent,” the department says.
(Goat enthusiasm for human sources of salt also is seen in native ranges such as Glacier National Park, which two years ago enlisted a border collie to herd them out of a crowded parking lot.)
“Despite their seemingly docile nature, mountain goats are aggressive with each other, using their sharp horns in such interactions,” Washington’s wildlife department says. “Habituation to people can produce a very dangerous situation.”