Mountain Goat Relocation at Olympic National Park

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Mountain goats from British Columbia and Alaska were moved to the Cascade Mountains by a hunting group in the 1920s, and they began multiplying exponentially, increasing from the original 12 to thousands by the 1980s
  • A controversy between state officials and environmentalists surrounded the presence of the animals, which escalated exponentially after a deadly incident at Olympic State Park in 2010
  • Both male and female mountain goats, weighing 180 and 155 pounds, respectively, sport horns, and their potential for aggression is high, especially as they attempt to satisfy their craving for minerals and salt
  • While typically docile, that mineral craving can pose a security threat for hikers, even when they stay on the trail (and some don’t), and the park alone encompasses 1,442 square miles
  • Of the approximate 700 mountain goats located on the Olympic Peninsula, only half will ultimately be relocated to their native habitat; 11 of them made up the first wave, transported by helicopter, crate, truck and ferry

It’s a harrowing proposition to round up mountain goats and return them to their native habitat. It must be similar to bull riding, but without spurs, chaps or flank straps. Instead, mountain goat handlers on such an enterprise, fittingly called “muggers,” are equipped with blindfolds and harnesses for the animals, and for themselves, helmets, medical gloves and sedation darts.

The actual transport is achieved via helicopters and pickup trucks, which hints at the level of planning and execution involved. At Olympic National Park, located west of Seattle on a peninsula across Puget Sound, the Cascade Mountains loom for 700 miles along the Pacific coast, from northern California through Oregon and Washington and into western Canada.

Peaks including Mount Hood in Oregon and Mount Rainier, which stands at 14,410 feet, are part of the landscape, along with Crater Lake, dense stands of Douglas firs and numerous streams flowing from the Willamette River. This range, made largely of volcanic rock and granite and peaks cloaked in glacier ice, is the backdrop for indigenous grizzly and black bears, bald eagles, wolves and moose.

But the mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) population, which the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) reports number up to 3,200, are not native to the area; to provide context, they’re also not even remotely related to domestic goats (Capra aegagrus hircus), which are closely related to sheep.1

Mountain Goats and People Don’t Mix

Comparing mountain goats, both males, which can reach 180 pounds, and females, which can reach 155 pounds, sport horns, and their potential for aggression is high, especially as they attempt to satisfy their craving for minerals and salt. While typically docile, that mineral craving can pose a security threat for hikers, even when they stay on the trail (and some don’t), and the park alone encompasses 1,442 square miles. WDFW explains:

“Minerals are limited in the alpine vegetation that mountain goats consume, especially in early summer when succulent new growth is particularly low in sodium and related minerals. Many mountain goats make use of natural mineral licks in early summer to satiate their desire to supplement this element of their diet. But others learn to associate people as a source of salt through urine and sweat.”2

When people visit alpine hiking trails, some unwittingly condition the hardy, generally loner mammals to human presence. When humans urinate on rocks or vegetation or hand-feed goats, it adds salt and minerals, both in the food and sweat on their hands. When goats see humans as possible salt sources and become less wary, they can become a nuisance, and in one relatively recent worst-case scenario — deadly. As the Seattle Times explains:

“The goats are among the first to be removed from the mountain range as part of an effort to rid the Olympics of the non-native ungulates that national park officials believe ruin park vegetation and pose a threat to visitors.”

Why Do Mountain Goats Need To Be Moved?

The Seattle Times cites the deadly incident that occurred in 2010. Officials became concerned about aggressive mountain goats after one in Olympic National Park fatally gored a 63-year-old hiker, severing an artery. The animal then stood over the man, which prevented the man’s rescue until it was too late.

That’s undoubtedly the main reason why park officials say a number of the ungulates (aka hoofed mammals) need to be removed from areas of the mountain range. Another is that they’re not native to the park. They were introduced by a hunting group that brought them from British Columbia and Alaska in the 1920s, and they’re multiplying exponentially, increasing from the original 12 to thousands by the 1980s.

Both capture and eradication efforts decreased their number to 300 in the early 1990s, The Seattle Times adds, but by 2016, their number hit 623, and 725 by the spring of 2018.

That constitutes an 8 percent increase every year, Olympic National Park Wildlife branch manager Patti Happe says, which makes action imperative. But she adds, “Our mission is to protect these vignettes of America,” said Happe. “They’re beautiful animals, but they’re not part of our ecosystem.”3

Activists Question the Killing of Mountain Goats

Happe’s inference includes another reason for what park personnel report regarding the powerful animals: They’re destroying the vegetation, some of which is said to be unique in the world, the park’s environmental-impact claimed, but that’s under hot debate. Further, environmentalists have been resisting the mountain goat removal plan, which involves capturing about half of the park’s mountain goats, and killing those that evade capture. According to The Seattle Times:

“In the 1980s and ’90s, park officials waged campaigns to remove or eradicate the non-native creatures … Activists decades ago needled holes in park officials’ plan for lethal removal, questioned their science and doubted their motives.

The debate boiled over, and the Department of the Interior hired an independent panel of scientists to sort out facts.… In a 2000 report, Noss’ team affirmed the park’s narrative: The goats were almost assuredly descendants of those transported in the 1920s.”4

In 1995, a poll commissioned by The Fund for Animals5 indicated that 3 of 4 people opposed killing the peninsula goats. A few years later, Washington’s then-U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks intervened and won the goats a reprieve. But the deadly mountain goat attack changed everything, park officials say. The produced a 500-page document looking at each angle of the controversy, as well as funding for the goat removal. A local newspaper, HeraldNet, weighed in on the situation:

“Yes, the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s mandate is to manage wildlife for all citizens, however there is another mandate: ‘Maximize the public recreational game fishing and hunting opportunities for all citizens.’ A survey of opinion on hunting showed that 80 percent of our citizens approve of legal and regulated hunting.

The goats in Olympic National Park are in direct conflict with the park mandate to protect the ecosystem in its natural state. The goats are not native to the park. The goats are destroying native vegetation. They also are become more aggressive and have killed one hiker. The Park Service has made the decision to remove the goats and relocation has emerged as the acceptable solution.”6

The Mountain Goat Removal Begins

In mid-September of 2018, only half of the 700 mountain goats in the area were slated to be moved to the Cascade Mountain Area, their native habitat, while the rest were expected to be killed.

The first subjects were shot with either a dart or a net fired from a gun before muggers approached them to help calm them for safe — for both humans and animals — attachment of slings for the flight from the park’s Bailey Range to Hurricane Ridge, where veterinarians and volunteers waited to streamline the process. The Seattle Times reports:

“Dazed with sedative drugs, the goats were laid peacefully at the bottom of the truck as the handlers kept close watch of their vitals. The truck then traveled about a quarter-mile down the roadway before dropping the goats off at a collection of tents that wouldn’t look out of place on the set of the army medical TV show ‘M.A.S.H.’

Atop park picnic tables, veterinarians put the animals through a battery of medical tests, including having their blood drawn and stool sampled. They were tagged and fitted with GPS collars. Then the goats were loaded into narrow specialty crates and into a refrigerator truck for transport to the North Cascades mountain range, soon to be their new home.”7

Eleven goats were transported in the first wave. Besides the crates, pickup trucks and helicopters, ferries and refrigerated trucks aided the workers in shuttling the mountain goats to several different areas of the North Cascades. Upon arrival, the operation is being transferred to officials from the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife. At times, inclement weather and visibility problems necessitated dropping the goats by truck; otherwise, they were deposited at high elevations.

Released from the harnesses and crates to run free, some of the goats “galloped dazed and bewildered by their ordeal” into their new home, The Seattle Times says, adding that while the entire project will take time, the goats’ new home should make them healthier in the long run, according to WDFW biologist Rich Harris, Ph.D. who coordinated the agency’s involvement in the project.

How Should Tourists Behave When in Mountain Goat Territory?

It’s understandably an incredible moment to catch sight of a mountain goat, but it’s important to understand that these animals can be aggressive with each other and use their horns both on the offense and the defense.

As noted earlier, when you’re in mountain goat habitat you should avoid any behavior that might encourage habituation — loss of their natural avoidance response — and always stay at least 50 yards away from mountain goats. If you’re hoping to get a close encounter or a close-up photo, WDFW advises, use binoculars and a telephoto camera lens. In addition:

  • Never offer them (or any other wildlife) food of any kind
  • Never urinate within 50 yards of a hiking trail
  • Leave pets at home when hiking in mountain goat habitat
  • Do not touch, surround, crowd or chase a mountain goat
  • Don’t allow a mountain goat to get too close (as they might), and don’t yell, raise your voice or wave your arms or an article of clothing

If a mountain goat approaches you too quickly, tossing rocks at them may impede their progress. Don’t worry; they’re tough — the point is to ease your way out of there, not maim them. And it’s never a good idea to hike alone, especially in trail areas where they may be habituated. A hiking buddy may prove invaluable in case of an attack.