September 17, 2018

3:27 pm

These Goats Are Moving Mountains

To sports fans on social media, "GOAT" is an acronym for "Greatest of All Time." Think Michael Jordan, or Tom Brady, or Serena Williams.

But to Washington (State) Department of Fish and Wildlife officials, too many goats is hardly a great thing. The horned, salt-seeking ungulates are, in fact, considered a "nuisance."

"Although typically shy and retiring," notes the WDFW website, "mountain goats can learn to approach people and become a nuisance or even potentially dangerous — all to satisfy a craving for minerals and salt."

That salt fix can come from a variety of contacts with humans, either licking their hands when offered food, or, believe it or not, from licking human urine just off of trail paths. And when the goats don't get what they want from humans, they can become aggressive — and very dangerous. One hiker was fatally attacked in 2010, according to the Seattle Times.

All of which has led to the bizarre sight of blindfolded mountain goats flying through the air, up to two at a time, dangling from orange "helicopter baskets" as choppers ferry them from a pick-up point to a veterinarian station. There, as noted in a Peninsula Daily News video,

the goats are detached from their baskets, checked for body weight and other vital signs, and loaded onto trucks that will transport them to a habitat in the North Cascades Mountains, where (unlike Olympic National Park), they are native and will replenish already existing herds.

The capturing process gives decision-making powers to a game "gunner" on the chopper, who, according to the Peninsula Daily News, will "either shoot a tranquilizer dart or a net at the goat, a decision that is partly based on how steep the terrain is."

This kind of species translocation is becoming more common globally, as the moving of animals from one habitat to another can benefit both ecosystems. It's not just that the mountain goats posed a problem for people on the trails of Olympic National Park, but also the ecosystem itself.

As the Washington Post reported, the mountain goats were introduced to Olympic National Park in the 1920s. And since their introduction to their new home have done serious damage to the habitat, by eating so much vegetation that soil has begun to erode.

The WDFW's overall plan calls for removing about 90% of the estimated 725 mountain goats in Olympic National Park. In the operation, estimated to take three to five years, about half of that 90% will be translocated to the North Cascades and the other half will be culled.

The removal of the mountain goats, notes the REI Co-Op Journal, will also be a boon to the Olympic marmot, which is native to the Olympics and competes with the invasive mountain goats for food. "The Cascades vegetation — the plants there, the ecosystem there — evolved with mountain goats and mountain goat herbivory," Patti Happe, wildlife branch chief at Olympic National Park, told the REI Co-Op Journal. "The Olympics did not.”