Hidden in remote mountaintops and subalpine climbs of Washington state, mountain goats can be seen in the summer traversing the landscape searching for tasty plants and, of course, salt.
Mountain goats are native to the Cascade Mountains in Washington and British Columbia, Canada but a group of goats in the Olympics on the state’s peninsula have been causing concern for environmental regulators.
A public meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on March 21 in North Bend to present management options to residents. U.S. Forest Service and state Fish and Wildlife representatives will be at the Snoqualmie Ranger District Office at 902 S.E. North Bend Way to answer community questions.
A population of more than 700 goats live in or around the Olympic National Park that are descended from about a dozen introduced to the area in the 1920s.
“There was a hunting club at the time in the Olympic Peninsula who thought it would be a great idea to have goats there so that they could eventually hunt them,” said Richard Harris, Washington State Fish and Wildlife mountain goat section manager. “We’re long since past the days when a sportsman club would be able to do that.”
The goats have since colonized the slopes of the Olympic Mountains and a study published by the National Parks Service documents the harm the mountain goats are causing on native vegetation, soils and park visitors.
Mountain goats inhabit subalpine meadows, fragile alpine areas and sparsely vegetated rock slopes, which are damaged as they forage and wallow. Archaeological sites in the park are also threatened by mountain goats. While it is unknown how many sites exist, there are at least 650.
Mountain goats can present a danger to humans, though attacks are rare. A man was gored to death by an aggressive mountain goat in 2010 while hiking in the park and a previous attack happened in 1999. These incidents usually occur when a mountain goat becomes acclimated to human presence. Mountain goats crave salt and the slopes of the Olympic National Park don’t provide natural sources like those found in the Cascades. One of the year-round sources of the salt mountain goats enjoy is the sweat and urine human hikers produce.
It’s not entirely clear why mountain goats love salt licks, but prime suspects are sodium and magnesium. Harris said most ungulates are attracted to salt licks in the spring, which likely stems from an imbalance of minerals in new vegetation.
Mountain goats, despite their name, are not closely related to domesticated goats, but are related to species like the chamois in Europe. The mountain goat is the only genus and species of its kind in the world and native to northwestern regions of North America. At least 2,400 mountain goats live in Washington, significantly lower than the 10,000 documented as recently as 1961.
Because of declining animal numbers in the species’ natural ranges in the Cascades and damage caused in the Olympic National Forest, the NPS developed an environmental impact statement proposing four options for dealing with mountain goats. One of these options could be implemented as early as this summer.
The department could do nothing and let the population continue on its trajectory along with the damage the goats are causing to the environment.
The first action alternative would start a management plan for individual goats in visitor areas and utilizing a range of actions to deal with problematic goats ranging from hazing to killing and would focus on managing goat behavior in areas of the park visitors use.
A second alternative would be capturing goats in the Olympic National Forest and transferring them to state land in the the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie and Okanagan-Wenatchee forests in east King and Snohomish counties. The NPS would trap the mountain goats and hand them over to Fish and Wildlife to supplement existing populations in the Cascades. The animals would be captured over the course of 3-5 years with the most activity happening in the first two.
This plan would move roughly 50 percent of the 725 known mountain goats from the peninsula by 2018 and periodic captures would continue to take place in areas of high visitor.
The third option would kill most of the mountain goats in the park. NPS and trained volunteers would cull the animals with shotguns and rifles from the ground and helicopters. Up to 90 percent of the population would be eliminated.
The Seattle Times wrote in September that culling efforts in the 1980s and 1990s dropped the population to around 300, but it has since rebounded.
The fourth option presented in the EIS is the preferred option and involves a mixture of capturing and killing mountain goats.
Capture would take place when it was deemed safe and until it reached a point of “diminishing returns.” The focus in the first year would be to nab the mountain goats and move them to the Cascades. By the third year the focus would shift toward killing.
All operations would be conducted during two separate, two-week periods in a year during July and August.
While Harris said Fish and Wildlife will not be involved in capturing or killing mountain goats, he welcomes more hooves on the ground in the Cascades.
“Our responsibility is to leave to our descendants a healthy population of the native species,” he said. “We’re very excited by the opportunity to move large numbers of goats, in the hundreds.”
It is unclear what unique ecological role mountain goats play in the Cascades but they have evolved as part of the environment. More mountain goats means a more diverse genetic pool for future generations, improving their chances of survival.
“We want them to be large enough, these habitat patches we call them, we want them to be large enough where the goat populations could grow,” Harris said.
Twelve release sites were suggested in the report, which include three in King County, one in Kittitas County and many farther north.
Drop off points near Preacher Mountain and Kaleentan would see roughly 30 goats released at each location and another 20 goats would be placed at the appropriately named Goat Meadow.
A public comment period dealing with the EIS was closed last year but a series of supplemental meetings will be held between March 20 and 26.