The Great Mountain Goat Debate

The Great Mountain Goat Debate

Hunters, anglers, and wildlife managers are occasionally willing to “naturalize” non-native wildlife with high aesthetic and sporting qualities. Think of the reverence and conservation attention paid to brown trout and ringneck pheasants—transplants from Northern Europe and China, respectively. If a species is beautiful, fun to pursue, and not causing too many problems, we simply fold it into our management paradigm alongside indigenous species.

Mountain goats in the Northern Rockies long strutted on that same pedestal. Now, many populations are being dragged down in deference to real native species.

In MeatEater Season 10, now streaming on Netflix, Steven Rinella hunted goats in the high crags of Montana’s Gallatin Mountains with his friend Kurt Racicot. The fact that wildlife managers are removing these animals from some nearby ranges was front of mind as he looked to fill his tag.

“The mountain goat seems so at home in this particular range in Montana that you run the risk of forgetting they’re not,” Steve said in the episode. “While native to the high-moisture mountain ranges generally west of the Continental Divide, mountain goats were relocated by humans to various other ranges and mountainous islands. Increasingly, some conservationists are asking whether we made the right decision all those years ago when we moved the goats around. The concern is that mountain goats are detrimental to native species in these newer environments.

“For me, as a mountain goat admirer, that’s a hard perspective to get on board with at first glance,” Steve continued. “But I am all ears.”

A Beast the Color of Winter Biologist Douglas Chadwick provided goats with the above appellation in his book by the same name. He explains how Oreamnos americanus are not actually true goats of the genus Capra, rather relating more closely to chamois, gorals, and serows—several goat-like species found throughout Asia. North America's "goats" occasionally beef up beyond 300 pounds and can stand nearly 4 feet tall at the shoulder.

Mountain Goat Native and Introduced Ranges

The mountain goat’s native range extends north from the Columbia River in Washington through the Cascade Mountains and along the coastal ranges of British Columbia, Yukon, and Southeast Alaska to the tip of the Kenai Peninsula. A separate band of original territory extends through the Northern Rockies from Alberta down into Montana and Idaho. These animals occupy subalpine and alpine environments deep in the mountains, often associating closely with cliffs, crags, and other rocky structures where they are uniquely suited to thrive and avoid predators.

Mountain goats are incredibly charismatic creatures, and it surely didn’t take much imagination to realize that there is a lot of appropriate habitat in the Western U.S. lacking native goats. As early as the 1920s, wildlife managers planted goats in the Black Hills of South Dakota where they persist in a huntable population today. Fish and game departments also restocked goats in areas of Washington, Idaho, and Montana where they’d been extirpated, as well as in the novel terrain of Colorado, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. Those introductions provide rare and epic hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities, but they also set mountain goats on a collision course with other animals inhabiting the fragile ecosystems in the highest places of the country.

Gone Goat, Gone The Idaho Department of Fish & Game introduced mountain goats in the Snake River Range in the 1960s to provide the state’s residents with more chances to pursue the revered game species. Some of those animals dispersed into the nearby Teton Mountains over the years and were first observed as a breeding population around the year 2000.

Meanwhile, the native bighorn sheep in Grand Teton National Park—an isolated, genetically distinct population that has never been extirpated—were in decline.

While mountain goats and mountain sheep display slightly different ecology, they occupy the same or very similar habitats in places where they do overlap. Both species winter at high elevations on windswept ridges where they can access mosses, grasses, and lichens. These limited territories and resources create competition between goats and sheep.

What’s worse, mountain goats can and often do asymptomatically carry Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, M.ovi for short, the fatal sheep pneumonia that frequently devastates bighorn and thinhorn herds throughout the continent. The goats in Teton possess two of the five known strains. The goats in the Snake River Range carry all five.

In 2013, the National Park Service estimated they had 10 to 15 mountain goats in the Tetons and started talking about getting rid of them, according to a great piece on this controversy in the Jackson Hole News & Guide. Finally in 2020, NPS rolled out a plan to cull the Teton goats employing sharpshooters in helicopters. That plan received major backlash, but maybe not for the reason you might expect.

Wyomingites were largely fine with getting rid of these goats. They just wanted to do it themselves. Their demand that hunters perform the cull reached through the Fish and Game Commission to Governor Mark Gordon, who contacted the Secretary of the Interior David Bernhadt, who ordered Acting Superintendent of Grand Teton Gopaul Noojibail to stand down his gunship. In its single day of flight before being grounded, the helicopter crew killed 36 goats.

Instead, the park rolled out a plan to allow volunteer hunters who could prove experience in mountain hunting and marksmanship to venture into the high peaks to kill the unwanted goats. They encouraged the hunters to kill as many as possible and barred them from collecting trophy parts like the head and hide—though they could take home any easily recoverable meat.

In the first “season” within Grand Teton, hunters culled 43 mountain goats before snow precluded further expeditions into the high peaks. Many of the same culling crews are heading back into Grand Teton in the fall of 2021 in an attempt to wipe out the remainder of the estimated 100 goats. There may be as few as 20 left.

Olympic Athletes The effort to lethally remove mountain goats from Grand Teton National Park mirrors to a certain degree an even larger project in another premier Park Service property: Olympic National Park in Western Washington.

Hunters, apparently on their own accord, released a dozen goats in the Olympic Mountains in 1925 before the formation of the park. The population flourished and spread, despite less-than-optimal conditions for goats. They grew to such a level that they began causing detrimental effects to native plants and alpine ecosystems. What’s even more problematic is that the coastal mountains lack natural salt deposits that goats depend on in their native range. That led some goats to seek other sources of salt—namely human sweat and urine. Throughout the years, countless visitors to ONP reported aggressive behavior from mountain goats, following them, bothering them, even stealing their sweaty clothes. In 2010, a billy goat gored a man to death, likely in a desperate search for salt. That event helped set into motion a massive plan to rid the park of its goats—hundreds and hundreds of them.

Starting in 2018, the National Park Service began capturing mountain goats in the Olympics. They tranquilized, constrained, blindfolded, and hoisted the animals by helicopter across Puget Sound and into the Cascade Mountains on the other side—native range for the animals where populations have struggled. In the first three years, they moved a whopping 375 billies, nannies, and kids across the Salish Sea to new habitats or zoos.

In 2020 the park implemented a new phase of the plan. Most of the easily accessible animals were already gone, so they decided to shoot the rest. The park recruited 99 hunters from thousands of applicants, who volunteered 9,000 hours to cull 31 animals. In 2021 the park broke out the choppers again, this time armed with rifles instead of tranquilizer guns. Flight crews shot 113 goats between July and September 2021, leaving an estimated 200 animals at large from the former population of 725. The park staff hope to have these mountains wiped clean of mountain goats by the end of 2022.

The Furry Future The National Park Service operates under a different mandate than many other public land and wildlife management agencies, specifically focused on protecting and preserving native species. Others like the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management must manage for multiple use and recreational opportunity. State game agencies usually lean toward recreational opportunities as well.

Mountain goat introductions in Montana’s Madison and Absaroka mountain ranges in the 1940s found their way into Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s. Though the park says they have no current plans to remove the animals, they are concerned, and it seems quite possible those animals will eventually go the way of their kin in Teton and Olympic.

The USFS and BLM have been more permissive of goat introductions performed by state game agencies. That said, a conflict is brewing in the La Sal Mountains where the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources released goats in 2013 against the wishes of the Forest Service. The population has exploded and expanded outside the state-owned parcel where they were introduced and into a nearby research area where they are impacting native flora. Local conservation groups are calling for those goats’ removal.

Wildlife managers seem almost constantly caught in the vicious cycle of killing off then replanting bighorn sheep populations wherever the M.ovi pneumonia is detected. It’s no stretch to believe that the next time that happens with non-native mountain goats in the vicinity, those goats’ days are numbered. However, lacking such an existential threat, most mountain goat populations are celebrated by hunters and wildlife viewers alike. There’s a reason we put them in so many new places.

“The [Montana] fish and game agency is trying to manage for healthy mountain goat populations and a lot of hunting opportunities,” Steve Rinella said after finally felling his goat in the Gallatin Range. “Increasingly, federal agencies, particularly the Park Service, are calling into question the validity of mountain goats being in mountain ranges where there’s no historical evidence they were in there. So, it’s a real push and pull. In our lifetime, they’ll probably talk about whether these goats belong here.”

To see Steve's hunt, check out Season 10, Episode 2 of MeatEater on Netflix.

Feature image via John Gussman, NPS.

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