Wildlife biologists have relocated the first two dozen of hundreds of non-native mountain goats slated for removal from Olympic National Park. The logistically-challenging capture and transfer of the woolly wild animals to the northern Cascade Range has been periodically slowed by weather this week.
The lead state wildlife biologist assigned to the project said he is still pleased to see the long-planned relocation operation underway.
"The fog and the clouds is the biggest issue for us right now," said Rich Harris of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Given the challenges that we've had with the weather, it's going amazingly well."
Mountain goats were originally introduced to the Olympic Mountains by a sportsmen’s group in the 1920s. They're slated for removal for damaging the fragile alpine environment and occasionally menacing hikers. In 2010, an Olympic Peninsula man bled to death after being gored by an aggressive mountain goat on a popular hiking trail.
Wildlife biologists aboard a chartered helicopter are using tranquilizer darts and net guns to capture the mountain goats on the high ridges of the Olympic Range. Harris said the captured goats undergo a medical check-up at the collection point. They also receive an injection of a long-lasting sedative to calm the animals and help them tolerate an overnight trip in narrow crates to the North Cascades.
The relocated mountain goats experience many forms of human transportation during their short period of captivity, including helicopter lifts, truck shuttles, a ferry ride across Puget Sound and short distance, hand-carried crate moves.
The first goats to be captured were released Tuesday as a group in the Seattle Public Utilities Cedar River watershed, which is closed to the public. Wednesday and Thursday, groups of goats were set free together near Stillaguamish Peak southeast of Darrington. Future release locations include high elevation sites elsewhere in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest as well as a couple of places in the adjacent Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Mountain goats are native to the Cascade Range, but their numbers are low. U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Jesse Plumage said he hopes the relocated goats will flourish in their new home.
“We’ve got a lot of unoccupied habitat out there right now because of past hunting pressure and in some cases timber management has had some impact on winter habitat," Plumage said. "So we’re trying to put them in places where they haven’t recovered yet since we stopped hunting them. The idea is to grow it back to historic levels.”
Plumage anticipates less human-goat conflict in the North Cascades than occurred in the Olympic Mountains.
"We're putting them in spots where there aren't very many people," Plumage said in an interview alongside the Mountain Loop Highway. "The other thing is that over here we have natural mineral licks, so the goats are probably less likely to go looking for humans."
The salt in human sweat and urine attracted mountain goats to hiking trails and backcountry campsites in the Olympic Mountains.
The released goats have ear tags and most will also carry radio tracking collars to monitor their survival.
The relocation of hundreds of mountain goats will happen in several stages from this month through early autumn of next year, possibly longer. The most recent estimate from Olympic National Park pegged the non-native mountain goat population around 725 animals. The national park's final goat management plan foresees killing the remaining mountain goats in the Olympics after the relocation effort wraps up.
"The plan is to reach a zero population level of mountain goats in the park and adjacent Olympic National Forest lands through capture and relocation and then lethal removal," the park service document said. "Our top priority is capture and relocation; however, once capture operations become impractical or hazardous due to steep terrain the remaining goats would be removed by lethal means."
The capture and relocation of mountains goats from the Olympic Range where they are non-native to the North Cascades where they do belong has not caused the sort of controversy seen lately around the management other charismatic wildlife such as wolves, grizzly bears, wild horses or sea lions.
"The case was made that that's the right thing to do," said USFS Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes as he watched a helicopter carry crated mountain goats two at a time into the high country on Wednesday.
The environmental group Olympic Park Associates gave its full-throated support to removal of "exotic goats" from the national park. Eight Western Washington tribes also lent support to the relocation plan.