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Why Washington Mountain Goats Are Being Flown From One National Park to Another

Olympic National Park’s mountain goats are moving to saltier pastures

smithsonian.com

Mountain goats at Olympic National Park have a tendency to get a little too close for comfort; they are known to follow hikers around in hopes of getting a salty lick from their sweat, urine or food. That’s because the Washington mountain range doesn’t have many natural salt licks which the animals rely on. In fact, despite its steep terrain, the National Park and Peninsula isn’t even native habitat for the animals, which were introduced in the 1920s. Now, as Evan Bush at the Seattle Times reports, in an effort to protect visitors and habitat, the park's 725 or so goats are being relocated or killed off.

According to a news release, back in May the National Park Service filed a final Mountain Goat Management Plan for the park, laying out a multi-year process of evicting the ungulates from the Olympics. The plan includes a two-week period this month, which began last week, for wildlife officials to sedate the goats and fly them out of the mountains via helicopter for re-location to the North Cascades National Park; there, mountain goats are a native species though there they’ve experienced precipitous declines due to overhunting. Two more two-week relocation periods are scheduled to take place next year. Officials believe they will be able to transport about half the goat population; any goats that are not reachable by wildlife officials will be killed over the next three to five years.

After they’re captured, the goats are being flown to a staging area where, according to Bush, they are fitted with a radio collar and undergo a full checkup and blood tests. When that’s accomplished, the animals are placed in special crates for transport to North Cascades, roughly 180 miles away. There they will be directly flown to five alpine habitat sites in the mountains to be released. Since that area has plenty of salt licks and vegetation that can withstand a glut of goats grazing, it’s believed they will adapt well and will stop harassing hikers.

“The translocation effort will relieve issues with non-native mountain goats in the Olympics while bolstering depleted herds in the northern Cascades,” Olympic National Park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum says in the release. “Mountain goats cause significant impacts to the park ecosystem as well as public safety concerns.”

In the case of mountain goat kids, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife notes that they are attempting to relocate them with their mothers when possible. "[W]hen young goats cannot be paired up with their mothers, [our] experience from other translocation projects is that their survival rates are low," the department notes in an Instagram post. Regional zoos will also provide temporary homes to goat kids with unknown mothers.

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Mountain goat kids have a new home at @nwtrek! As part of the effort to relocate mountain goats from the Olympic National Park to the North Cascades, regional zoos are partnering with us to provide homes for goat kids without known mothers. Our plan is to translocate nanny-kid pairs when possible, but when young goats cannot be paired up with their mothers, experience from other translocation projects is that their survival rates are low. Zoo officials have not yet determined where these particular goats will live long-term. Northwest Trek can provide a permanent home for up to five goat kids, and @woodlandparkzoo can care for up to two. Photo: @nwtrek #wildwashington #wildlife #mountaingoat #partnerships #conservation

A post shared by WA Dept of Fish & Wildlife (@thewdfw) on

It’s believed that hunters first brought mountain goats to the Olympics in the 1920s, before the area was declared a national park. They multiplied by the hundreds, causing damage to vegetation and erosion. This isn’t the first time attempts have been made to move the goast; in the 1980s, Karin Bruillard at The Washington Post reports, 400 animals were captured and moved to other habitat in the West. Public outcry stopped that relocation and elimination effort, Bush of the Seattle Times explained in a previous story, and over time the population rebounded, more than doubling. Without intervention, the herd could reach 1,500 animals by 2028.

After exploring all possible options in a multiyear review process, the NPS’ May plan recommended the best course of action for the national park was to remove all the goats so that the population couldn’t rebuild in the future.

While some advocates argued the goats should be left alone, the goats' harassment of hikers helped to spur the decision to completely remove them. In 2010, a man was gored to death by an aggressive goat on a popular hiking trail. “It had an impact on how people view goats,” former acting superintendent Lee Taylor tells Bush. “Before the fatality, I don’t think there was a full appreciation of that [danger].”

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Rich Harris, who is involved in the project, tells Bush that it will be a while before researchers know if the Olympic goats are happy in their new home. “Goat populations don’t grow fast,” he says. “Success won’t be seen for a decade or maybe two.”

Then again, the goats may not lose their taste for people-produced salt after all. Goats and sheep in Glacier National Park, where they are a native species, have become a nuisance in parking lots where they lick up antifreeze drips and look for urine spots from people who couldn’t hold it. The problem has gotten so bad the park has used Border Collies to chase them back into the hills.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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