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Mountain goats are symbol of alpine wildlife. Should there be more at Mount Baker?

A mountain goat traverses a slope at Olympic National Park.
A mountain goat traverses a slope at Olympic National Park. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Those exploring the high altitudes of the North Cascades may see mountain goats more often if a proposed plan is approved.

The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, along with the state Department of Fish & Wildlife and area tribes, have proposed relocating hundreds of goats from the Olympic Mountains to the North Cascades beginning as early as mid-2018.

The plan aims to boost recovery of the species in the North Cascades.

The agencies released a draft environmental impact statement, or EIS, in July outlining the impact of killing or relocating mountain goats in Olympic National Park and neighboring Olympic National Forest, where they have caused problems – including the goring death of a hiker in 2010..

They’re an icon of the alpine zone. They are an icon of the high country … They’re on the label for everything from mountain bikes to micro breweries.

Western Washington University professor David Wallin

Western Washington University professor David Wallin, who has studied the region’s mountain goats for about 15 years alongside the Stilliguamish Tribe of Indians and state wildlife managers, said the proposal could improve both the Olympic and North Cascades national parks and surrounding forest lands.

“We’re taking the goats from the Olympics where they are not native and they are having an endemic effect on native plant populations, and we’re taking them to a place in the Cascades where they are native and the populations compared to historical numbers are now very, very low,” he said.

An unnatural presence

Mountain goats average 130 to 350 pounds and have horns as long as 10 inches, according to Fish & Wildlife. They live in high-elevation areas.

A dozen were moved to the Olympic Mountains from Alaska and British Columbia in the 1920s, and at one point the population reached about 1,000 animals, according to Fish & Wildlife.

Since then, the mountain goats have trampled rare plants and some have become aggressive toward those exploring the area’s public lands.

The goats’ drive to find salt – there are no natural sources of it in the Olympics – means they are drawn to sweat, urine and food associated with humans, Olympic National Park wildlife biologist Patti Happe said.

That aggression led to the death of an Olympic National Park visitor in 2010.

In the North Cascades, sources of salt can be found in rock outcrops and soil.

When it comes to safety, Happe and other Park Service officials said goats that have shown aggressive behavior in the Olympics would be killed rather than relocated to the North Cascades, and any goats that are relocated would be placed in areas that have few visitors.

Restoring a population

Relocating goats to the North Cascades could boost recovery of the mountain goat population there.

“The goats are native to the Cascade range and those populations are greatly diminished from what they were originally. There are just too few animals left for them to rebound on their own,” Happe said.

A more robust mountain goat population in the region could allow Fish & Wildlife to increase hunting opportunities, which are currently limited to about a dozen permits a year for the Cascades north of Interstate 90.

Those permits are awarded based on a lottery system.Fish & Wildlife typically gets 150 to 300 applications per permit, said Harris said in an email.

“Most often, hunters apply for 10, 15, or 20 years before they are lucky enough to draw a permit,” Harris wrote

The proposed plan would involve relocating about half the estimated Olympic population of 725 mountain goats to the North Cascades region over about five years.

That would not only increase the number of goats in the North Cascades, but would add to the population’s genetic diversity, increasing the likelihood of the species’ long-term survival.

“Genetic diversity increases the capacity of the population to sort of respond to changing environmental conditions,” Wallin said.

For tribes and others in the Pacific Northwest, the goats are culturally important.

“They’re an icon of the alpine zone. They are an icon of the high country … They’re on the label for everything from mountain bikes to micro breweries,” Wallin said. “They are a species that is a symbol of a sort of wildness, even for people that have never seen them.”

For bald eagles, cougars and other predators – including grizzly bears that may be brought to the North Cascades – mountain goats may also be an important source of food.

Fixing a mistake

The North Cascades mountain goat population has struggled for decades after its numbers were slashed due to hunting.

Wallin said hunting between the 1950s and 1980s culled thousands from the estimated population of 10,000.

The trouble was two-fold.

State wildlife managers did not realize that unlike deer, both male and female goats have horns, which resulted in the accidental killing of female goats.

Wallin said they also did not realize mountain goats are slower to reproduce than deer, so the population declined significantly during the years hunting was allowed.

The state has since limited hunting, yet that has not been enough to restore the population.

“The populations in the Cascades haven’t really rebounded and that’s troubling. We’re interested in what we can do to restore them to historic levels,” Wallin said. “Our hope is we can augment the Cascade population with some of these animals from the Olympics and sort of jump-start this recovery.”

Fish & Wildlife estimates there are now 2,400 to 3,200 mountain goats in the state and that they are in small groups that are great distances from one another.

According to a state Department of Natural Resources study, the majority of those goats – aside from those currently in the Olympics – are believed to be clustered around Mount Baker and Mount Rainier.

Goats relocated from the Olympics could be placed in areas with suitable habitat but which are void of native goats, according to the draft EIS.

The plan

To relocate the goats, teams of wildlife experts would be brought in for two weeks a year between July and September to round up goats in the Olympics and fly them by helicopter to the North Cascades, according to the draft EIS.

The process is expected to take several years, and any goats not relocated would be killed to eliminate the species from the Olympics.

Six to 12 goats would be moved at a time to any of the 12 proposed release sites throughout the North Cascades, most of which are in the Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest.

The release sites range from the northern Okanogan Wenatchee National Forest at the Skagit and Okanogan county border to the southern Mount Baker Snoqualmie National Forest south of Snoqualmie Pass, according to the draft EIS.

Three release sites would be in Skagit County: Two southeast of Marblemount on Snowking Mountain and Buckindy Mountain, and one at the northeastern edge of the county in an area between Diablo and Winthrop on Tower Mountain.

Relocated goats would be ear-tagged or collared with GPS or radio collars to allow Fish & Wildlife to track their movements.

Jennifer Sevigny, wildlife biologist for the Stilliguamish tribe, said the tribe would assist with the release and collaring of some goats.

While the capture, release and killing of mountain goats would require temporary closures on some public lands, the relocation plan is backed by federal and state agencies because it would have long-term benefits in both the Olympics and North Cascades.

The plan would benefit Olympic National Park visitors by improving safety, and would benefit North Cascades visitors by increasing the chance of seeing a mountain goat – or hunting one – in its native habitat.

The National Park Service has been planning how to manage mountain goats in Washington for several decades. The agency, in partnership with others, began the EIS process for Olympic mountain goats in 2014.

The agencies are now finishing the EIS, which will include responses to about 115 major concerns raised in about 2,300 comments received in response to the draft EIS.

Olympic National Park spokeswoman Christina Miller said the EIS is expected to be complete in mid-2018.

As soon as it is completed, the agencies involved could begin contracting with wildlife professionals to carry out the relocation of the mountain goats, she said.

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