Washington’s Olympic National Park, a designated UNESCO heritage site, is home to astounding biodiversity. It encompasses a wide array of ecosystems, including the longest stretch of undeveloped coastline in the United States and one of the best examples of an intact temperate rainforest. It’s also home to a particularly unruly population of over 600 mountain goats, which are non-native to the area and hazardous to both their environment and hikers.
On Monday, Olympic National Park officials released a proposal to curtail the population of mountain goats in the Olympic Range. Their proposed methods include lethal removal of mountain goats, a capture and translocation program that would move the goats to the North Cascades, or a combination of the two. The preferred option is the combined use of lethal removal and translocation, which would bolster dwindling native populations of mountain goats in the Cascades while maintaining the simpler and less expensive option of lethal removal when capture is logistically or financially impractical .
Mountain goats were introduced to the area in 1920 by a sportsmen’s group who brought the animals down from Alaska prior to the park’s creation in 1938. Due to isolation, the Olympic Range has markedly less diversity of mammalian fauna than the nearby Cascade Range, and the goats quickly colonized the entire range. The majority of the population lives inside the bounds of the park, but they extend into the Olympic National Forest as well.
The goats’ unfettered grazing and tendency to wallow (aggressively roll around in the dirt destroying any plants in their path) has greatly impacted the flora in the Olympic Range, contributing to soil erosion and destroying habitat for native species. Their affinity for salt, which occurs naturally in their native ranges but not in the Olympics, has led the goats to seek salt from human sweat and urine. This learned behavior has translated into nonchalance and aggression toward hikers, including the death-by-goring of a Washington man in 2010.
The proposed action plan is not the first effort by the park to curb the goat population. In the 1980s, the Park Service relocated 407 Olympic National Park goats, but halted the program due to concerns about employee and animal safety. Following the 2010 hiker death, they instated a program to mitigate the risk posed by hazardous goats on a case-by-case basis, using methods ranging from lethal removal to area closures. A continuation of their current approach to mountain goats is offered in the proposal as a no action alternative.
Despite the fact that the goats are definitively destructive to the Olympic Range’s native species, mountain goat management in Olympic National Park is controversial. It raises questions about the park service’s responsibility to aid species at the expense of others, what qualifies a species as “alien,” and, of course, how to safely and humanely deal with the goats themselves. The public is invited to weigh in on the proposal, which can be read in its entirety here and contextualized here, during a two month comment period ending September 26.
Photo by Lawrence S. Smith, courtesy of USFWS.
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