Goat sacrifice to begin at Olympic National Park

Goat sacrifice to begin at Olympic National Park

(Beth Clifton collage)

284-page “management plan” garbles history,  all but ignores climate change,  & says nothing about goats as puma prey

            OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK,  Washington––An estimated 625 to 675 mountain goats whose ancestors have peaceably roamed the icy upper reaches of Olympic National Park,  Washington,  for 14 years longer than the 80-year-old park has existed are to become sacrificial scapegoats during the summer of 2018,  and over the next three to five years,  to ecological misconceptions written into the Wilderness Act of 1964,  enshrined as National Park Service policy.

One such misconception is that “introduced” species are inherently harmful to “native” species,  even if the “introduced” species thrive as “native” just 100 miles away,  among essentially  the same suite of other animals and plants.

(Beth Clifton collage)

“Untrammeled by man”?

Another misconception is that what is now Olympic National Park,  attracting 3.4 million visitors in 2017,  ever fit the Wilderness Act criteria of being “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man,  where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

The 3.4 million visitors have approximately the same cumulative ecological impact as a year-round community of 9,000 people.  And the mere existence of more than 200 sites in the park where archaeological artifacts have been found,  mentioned often in the newly published 284-page Mountain Goat Management Plan/Final Environmental Impact Statement, points toward frequent,  if not necessarily continuous use of the habitat by Native Americans for thousands of years.

Native American activities,  as well as logging,  hunting,  and ranching by settlers,  helped to shape the habitat and balance of species into which mountain goats were released in 1925-1929 by forest rangers who hoped to attract trophy hunters.

(Beth Clifton collage)

“Move half & shoot the rest”

Co-produced by the National Park Service,  U.S. Forest Service,  USDA Wildlife Services,  and the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife, the Mountain Goat Management Plan/Final Environmental Impact Statement recommends “the relocation of the majority of mountain goats [now present in Olympic National Park] to U.S. Forest Service lands in the North Cascades forests,  and the lethal removal of the remaining mountain goats in the park.”

What that means,  specifically,  is that efforts are to be made during the next several summers to capture 325 to 375 mountain goats by luring them into “clover traps,”  meaning stockades baited with clover,  netting them through the use of net guns,  sedating them,  flying them in helicopter slings to waiting trucks,  and then trucking them overnight to release points in habitat which,  although technically “native” for the goats,  none have ever seen before.

(Beth Clifton collage)

Goats to be moved to “huntable” habitat

The habitat in the North Cascades differs little,  in matters of concern to mountain goats,  from the habitat in Olympic National Park.  But despite the ambitions of the rangers who released the first dozen mountain goats in what is now Olympic National Park,  hunting has not been allowed in the park since it was created by an act of Congress in 1938.

Only those few mountain goats who may have descended into the Olympic National Forest,  surrounding Olympic National Park,  during hunting season,  will have had any prior experience of being hunted other than by pumas,  their main natural predator.

In the North Cascades the mountain goats may be hunted.  Indeed,  the major argument for translocating them in the Mountain Goat Management Plan is that the native mountain goats in the North Cascades have been hunted to scarcity,  and have had difficulty recovering “huntable” abundance.

(Beth Clifton)


Meanwhile back in Olympic National Park,  mountain goats who become wary enough to evade capture during the early phases of the attempt to extirpate them are eventually to be shot.  Some may be gunned down from trails,  others from helicopters.

Says the Mountain Goat Management Plan about when and how the decision to stop capturing goats and start shooting them is to be made,  “The determination about whether it is no longer safe to capture more mountain goats,  from a human and mountain goat safety standpoint, would be made by a consensus of the project leaders,  consulting veterinarians,  and the capture contractor,  and would be based on the rate and type of capture-related mountain goat mortalities and environmental conditions.

“Ceasing operations would also be based on capture efficiency. When it takes approximately three times as long to safely capture a mountain goat, as compared to the hours during the initial capture operation phase during the first year, capture operations would cease.”

(Beth Clifton collage)

No remains to be left where visible

The Mountain Goat Management Planstipulates that the remains of mountain goats are not to be left within 325 feet of trails,  partly to avoid attracting dangerous scavenging wildlife into proximity to humans,  partly to avoid having Olympic National Park visitors see dead mountain goats and began objecting to the “mountain goat management plan.”

Along the way,  the Mountain Goat Management Plan argues that reducing Olympic National Park biodiversity by removing mountain goats is to be done to protect the native biodiversity of plants,  though the major ecological role of mountain goats––like that of other herbivores––is depositing plant seeds in new habitat, along with the fertilizer that the seeds need to grow.

(Beth Clifton collage)

Goats originally persecuted as campground nuisance

“The original need to manage this exotic species,”  the Mountain Goat Management Plan inaccurately claims,  “was an ecological concern related to the impacts that mountain goats impose on natural resources at the park,  particularly sensitive vegetation communities (NPS 1995; Houston, Schreiner, and Moorhead 1994).”

NewspaperArchive.com demonstrates that this is fiction.  The first public complaints about the presence of mountain goats in Olympic National Park surfaced in 1969,  and concerned salt-seeking goats licking and chewing clothing that visitors hung out to dry in campgrounds.

Four goats were translocated from Olympic National Park to the nearby Gilbert Pinchot National Forest in 1972,  but the first mention that all of the goats should be removed as a “non-native” species came only after that,  as did the first suggestion that the goats might be harming native plants.

Ranger explains safe behavior around mountain goats in Olympic National Park.

407 goats moved,  1981-1989

More goat translocations followed,  but primarily to rebuild populations elsewhere that had been hunted out.  Acknowledges  the Mountain Goat Management Plan,  “The park implemented a series of live capture operations from 1981 to 1989,  translocating 407 mountain goats to other mountain ranges throughout several western states.  An additional 119 mountain goats were legally harvested during sport hunting seasons outside the park,”  the Mountain Goat Management Plan notes,  “and three known mountain goats were illegally harvested [poached] in the park between 1983 and 1997.”

Protecting the safety of Olympic National Park visitors continued to be the main argument made for mountain goat removal before the mid-1990s,  though the first and only serious injury attributed to mountain goats before 1999 came in August 1975.

Goats kill one,  injure two,  in 80 years

Then,  according to the Port Angeles News,  “Daniel Hanify,  17,  was watching goats climbing on the rocks above him on Mt. Angeles when one goat apparently started rocks tumbling.  One large rock struck Hanify on the head.”

Hanify suffered a skull fracture,  but was able to walk to the nearest road,  with the help of two friends,  to be driven to meet a helicopter that flew him to Olympic Memorial Hospital.

A visitor suffered a non-fatal goring in 1999.  Then,  the Mountain Goat Management Plan mentions,  “Safety concerns were increased in 2010 when a visitor,”  63-year-old Robert H. Boardman,  “was fatally gored by a mountain goat while hiking on a park trail.”

Thus,  in 80 years,  fewer visitors have been killed or badly injured by mountain goats in Olympic National Park than typically die and are injured in the worst several vehicular accidents in the park and on park access roads each and every tourist season.

(Ashley Rawhouser/National Park Service photo)

Goats blamed,  not global warming

Discussion of the possible mountain goat impact on rare native plants began to be raised with increasing frequency after 1977.

Says the Mountain Goat Management Plan,  “Through herbivory and wallowing behaviors, mountain goats have directly and indirectly affected the vegetation in the Olympic Mountains.  Changes in the relative abundance of plant species have been observed as a result of mountain goat herbivory; this has altered competitive interactions among plant species.  As the mountain goat population on the Olympic Peninsula increased prior to live capture operations in the 1980s, changes in vegetation were substantial, and the status of rare plant populations became a concern.”

Not even mentioned,  however,  are the major climatic effects on park vegetation caused by global warming,  beginning to become visible during the same years,  and having an accelerating impact today,  as the year-round icepack retreats to higher elevations,  less precipitation falls,  stream temperatures warm,  and the risk of wildfires increases.

(Beth Clifton collage)

Population fluctuations

After nine years of more-or-less continuous translocations of mountain goats,  the Olympic National Park population had been reduced from a peak estimate of more than 1,000 to 389,  according to a July 1990 survey.

“Live capture operations were halted in 1990 for several reasons,  including employee safety,  animal safety,  and changing Department of the Interior rules concerning helicopter landing techniques,”  the Mountain Goat Management Plan says.  “Subsequent surveys were conducted in 1994, 1997, and 2004.  A survey conducted in 2011 revealed that the population started increasing between 2004 and 2011.  Most recently,  a 2016 survey revealed that the population has continued to increase to an estimated 625 mountain goats,  with an 8% average annual rate of increase from 2004 to 2016.  At this growth rate,  there could be approximately 725 mountain goats on the Olympic Peninsula by 2018.”

Puma at Big Cat Rescue.  (Beth Clifton photo)


Significantly,  though discussing the population of a prey species without mentioning the species’ major predators would appear to be nonsense,  the Mountain Goat Management Plan includes no statement of the relative abundance of pumas in Olympic National Park,  and there appears to be no recent puma population assessment for the park in any other context.

To what extent pumas might suffer from no longer having mountain goats to hunt is also not discussed.

(National Park Service photo)

Contraceptive use rejected

The Mountain Goat Management Planrejects any use of contraceptives to reduce and suppress Olympic National Park goat numbers.

“Although fertility control has been demonstrated to be effective in controlling individual animal fertility,”  the plan states,   chiefly because “Where fertility control has been successful, it has limited population growth,  but has not eliminated wild ungulate populations.”

Continues the Mountain Goat Management Plan,  “Chemical agents, such as immunocontraceptive vaccines (e.g., native PZP or GnRH vaccines),  require repeated doses to the same animal,  to be highly effective at suppressing fertility.  Due to the remote, rugged, and extreme terrain where the mountain goats reside,  helicopter darting during the summer months would be necessary to either capture or vaccinate the goats.  This would require several months of flying each year.  In the Olympic Mountains, such a program would be costly, impactful, and not effective for eliminating goats or their impacts because it would be impossible to treat a sufficient number to significantly impact population dynamics. In addition,  over time,  goats would learn to avoid helicopters.”

(Beth Clifton collage)

“Wilderness values”

Finally,  says the Mountain Goat Management Plan,  echoing the language used in lawsuits against U.S. government agencies by opponents of using immunocontraceptives to stabilize wild horse populations,  “The use of fertility control adversely affects wilderness values because it is not a natural process.  Fertility control as an authorized management action would have a negative effect on the untrammeled and natural qualities of wilderness character because it would be an intentional manipulation of the biophysical environment.”

Beth & Merritt Clifton
Animals 24-7

In particular,  “If all goats were to be indiscriminately darted from the air,  this would be an adverse effect on the undeveloped quality of wilderness character.  Noise from helicopters would disrupt the natural soundscape and area closures to visitors may need to be in effect during darting operations. Most concerning is that these actions would need to take place on a regular basis to be effective until all exotic goats are eliminated.”

All of which will also be true of helicoptering mountain goats to trucks and then using gunners aboard helicopters to shoot the 300-plus who are expected to evade capture.

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 editor@hcn.org or submit a letter to the editor.




The National Park Sevice and other agencies want to remove as many goats as possible from Olympic National Park and relocate them to the North Cascades. Under the plan, the remaining animals would be shot to eradicate them from the park.