(CN) – Ninety-eight mountain goats are starting over in the peaks of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state, after the government flew them there from the Olympic Peninsula, in an effort to eradicate the animals from an area where humans introduced them.
Seventeen died during the effort.
Though the two mountain ranges are a mere 70 miles apart, Mount Olympus is geographically isolated from the Cascades and the area’s separate evolutionary track did not include wild goats until they were introduced by a hunting group in the 1920s.
The Northern Cascade Mountains, meanwhile have always been home to goats, and their population there is struggling to recover from overhunting. An interagency effort ended its first of the first of three planned two-week relocation periods.
The government removed 115 goats out of an estimated 725 on the peninsula, according to a joint statement Wednesday from the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Of those removed, 98 made it safely to release sites atop the Northern Cascades.
Six mountain goat kids were captured without their mothers, and were placed instead in a sanctuary at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park. Six adults died during capture, two died during transport and three were euthanized “because they were unfit for translocation,” according to the statement.
The northwestern corner of the United States, the Olympic Peninsula is isolated on three sides from the rest of Washington state. The bays and inlets of the Salish Sea enclose the peninsula on the north and east, while the western peaks of Mount Olympus plummet down toward the Pacific Ocean. To the south lie low-elevation forests – a no-go zone for alpine species that might otherwise travel between the two mountain ranges.
Thousands of years of isolation have created a unique alpine habitat with plants and animals that live nowhere else. At least 33 rare plants that grow nowhere else live in the alpine meadows of Olympic National Park, where goats forage in the summer, according to the environmental impact statement prepared by the National Park Service for the mountain goat removal project. Four of those are heavily grazed by goats, including Cotton’s milkvetch, which is globally imperiled, and the adorably named featherleaf kittentails, which is designated as threatened by the state.
But mountain goats were not part of that evolution. Common in the Cascades until overhunting severely depressed their numbers, 12 goats were introduced on Mount Olympus by hunters who traded them with hunting groups in Alaska and Canada for several locally abundant Rocky Mountain Elk. The population grew to nearly 1,000 in the 1980s, when the government last tried to cull its numbers.
At that time, the goats’ behavior had caused vast disturbance in the areas they colonized. Not only do goats trample and gobble up rare alpine plants, they also wallow in the dirt to cool off, causing bald spots in the delicate meadows that let invasive plants get a foothold.
The government moved some of them to the Cascades then, and shot others. It reduced the population to “between zero and two” goats, and those that remained again proliferated. Today, wildlife biologists estimate that there are upwards of 725 mountain goats in Olympic Park and the surrounding area.
Though the goats have flourished in the Olympic Peninsula, in many ways it is not their ideal climate. The basalt of the peninsula erodes much easier than the harder granite of the Cascades, and is easily pulverized under the goats’ hooves. Geologically speaking, the soil on the peninsula is much younger than soil in the Cascades, and lacks the structure to hold up to a regular schedule of goat wallowing. And basalt lacks the mineral and salt deposits common in granite – leaving the goats mineral starved and willing to seek out salt from the sweat and urine of hikers.
Sometimes that just means that the 2.9 million annual visitors to Olympic National Park get a closer glimpse of the magical-looking, white furred, black horned creatures. But sometimes male goats get aggressive.
In 1991, the government announced a plan to kill the entire population in the peninsula. Public outrage scuttled that. The current effort was launched in 2010, when a hiker was gored to death by a goat that was probably seeking salt from the hiker’s sweat.
This time, the government agencies proposed moving goats from the peninsula, to the Northern Cascades, just across the Salish Sea. There, the mountain goat population was decimated by overhunting, but the government didn’t study the goats’ decline until native tribes insisted it do so.
Ben Joseph, chairman of the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, said the goats used to be everywhere.
“Right now they’re on a few of the mountaintops here, whereas in traditional times they were vastly spread out through our region and our territory,” Joseph said. “We could see them from pretty much any location in our village sites.”
In 2000, the Sauk-Suiattle petitioned the government to look into the goats’ decline. Later, the tribe contributed $250,000 to help the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife conduct a $150,000-per-year study of the goats’ movement patterns to get an accurate count of the animals and find out where they spend their summers and winters. The government documented a fragmentation that kept various groups from interbreeding. Hunting is now severely limited, but populations have struggled to rebound to historical numbers.
Joseph said the tribe decided to act on its own.
“The North Cascades is their home and we share that home with them,” Joseph said. “This history is what made us and when we see this decline happening faster and faster we know we have to do something about it.”
The tribe’s biologists did their own studies, collaring and monitoring the goats on tribal land to see if disease or another factor was preventing the goats from thriving. A tribal biologist is now helping the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife place goats from the peninsula on Sauk-Suiattle territory.
“We’re extremely excited,” Joseph said. “In our eyes, they’re coming back home. They’re coming back to where they belong.”
The government says it can probably move about half the population before it gets too dangerous to continue. Then, it will likely shoot the remaining goats and leave their carcasses to decompose where they lived.
Officials with the Olympic National Park said they would like to move as many goats as possible, but safety concerns would probably prevent them from moving more than about half of the population.
“We will get to a point where goats are in very rocky steep terrain, where it’s no longer safe to do net gun and tranquilizer dart operations to capture them,” said Penny Wagner, spokeswoman for the park. “We know from past activities what that number is. The real goal is to capture and translocate as many as we can safely. We will continue to transfer as long as we can.”
Over the past two weeks, 98 goats got new lives on a mountain better suited to their needs. First, the animals were shot from the air with a tranquilizer gun. Then, they were fitted with a specially made harness and airlifted by helicopter to a staging area on lower ground. After that, they traveled by refrigerated truck to one of two national forests in the Cascades – either Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest or Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Other goats were taken to the Cedar River Watershed, southeast of Seattle. From there, they took another helicopter ride to an alpine area chosen for its current lack of goats.
David Wallin, professor of environmental sciences at Western Washington University in Bellingham, oversaw the release of 14 goats on Tower Mountain last Thursday, and eight more on Monday.
“It went quite well,” Wallin said. “Each of the goats had been in crates for as much as 24 hours. Some come out pretty fast and others come out a little creaky, as you might if you were cooped up for that long. We set up snow fences to make a chute to try and make them stay together as much as possible. Most of the goats we released we saw them going off together. A few shot off their own separate way.”
Joseph, the Sauk-Suiattle chairman, said he’s holding out for the possibility that the government will be able to move all 725 goats to the Cascades.
“We’d like to get them all over here,” Joseph said. “If they don’t want them in the Olympics we’d like them all to come back but the reality is, that’s not likely to happen. But I’m always going to have that hope until they call us and say we’ve sent the last goats that we’re going to capture and send over. Then I’ll have an idea of what we were able to change and how close we were able to get.”