Officials are nearing a decision on what to do with an overpopulation of mountain goats — some of which are aggressive — in Olympic National Park.

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In 2010, a mountain goat in Olympic National Park gored a 63-year-old hiker and severed an artery. Then the goat stood over the bleeding man and prevented rescuers from tending to the injury. It proved fatal.

The tragic, rare goat attack helped rekindle a dormant battle over the peninsula’s mountain goats.

In the 1980s and ’90s, park officials waged campaigns to remove or eradicate the nonnative creatures, said to be destroying plant life within the park.

Share your opinion on mountain goats’ fate

The National Park Service is accepting public comment on goat management through Sept. 26.

Share your thoughts: https://parkplanning.nps.gov/commentForm.cfm?documentID=77644

Those efforts stalled, and now the National Park Service is taking another swing. This summer, it published four plans for goat management. Park officials favor capturing as many mountain goats as possible over several years, transporting them to the North Cascades and killing goats that evade seizure.

Goats moved to the North Cascades would boost a population diminished by years of overhunting, biologists say.

There’s history here. Activists decades ago needled holes in park officials’ plan for lethal removal, questioned their science and doubted their motives.

“It was standing room only” in public meetings, said Roger Anunsen, working then with The Fund for Animals. “The park … felt threatened.”

In 1995, an Elway Poll commissioned by the fund showed three of four people opposed killing the peninsula goats. A few years later, Washington’s then-U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks stepped in and won the goats a reprieve.

This time is different, park officials say. They’ve produced a nearly 500-page document that seemingly examines every angle, secured some funding for goat removal and wrangled other government agencies to participate.

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And you’d hardly have known mountain goats were so controversial from an August public meeting in Seattle. Eight people from government agencies were on hand to explain the plan. Seven people, including myself, attended. Though Olympia and Port Angeles meetings saw better turnout, the issue is far from buzzing.

“To make it through this part of the process without major controversy … I’m encouraged,” said the park’s acting superintendent, Lee Taylor. “It feels like this is the moment we could get it done.”

Public comment will be taken through Sept. 26, and a decision is expected by spring.

Still, convincing people it’s in nature’s best interest to give up some of Washington’s most charismatic megafauna remains a delicate task.

From 12 goats to 623

You’ve got to hand it to the peninsula’s mountain goats — they’re survivors.

Just 12 were brought by a hunting group to the Olympics from British Columbia and Alaska in the 1920s, according to park officials and old newspaper clippings. But those animals were fruitful. By the early 1980s, goats had multiplied into the thousands, according to a park count.

Even after capture and eradication efforts reduced their number to about 300 in the early 1990s, they rebounded. Last year, the population hit 623, according to a park census. Their ranks are growing about 8 percent a year, said Olympic National Park Wildlife Branch Manager Patti Happe, which makes action imperative.

“Because the population is growing every year … the problem gets harder to deal with,” she warned.

Under the park’s preferred plan, Happe estimates a contract crew would be able to capture about half the peninsula’s goats.

Most would be captured by air. A pilot would steer a helicopter near goats, a marksman would shoot a net or tranquilizing darts and then a “mugger” would hop out to subdue the animals. The crew would sling goats beneath a helicopter and fly them to staging areas.

From there, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) officials would take charge. Goats would receive veterinary care and be placed in separate crates. Some would receive GPS collars. Then, biologists would send them (likely in a refrigerated truck) to one of a dozen sites more than 75 miles east in the North Cascades.

The project would cost the National Park Service around $200,000 to $250,000 a year, Happe said, and funding has been secured for 2018. WDFW’s costs would run to about $350,000 for two years of moving goats.

Six goats brought last year from Oregon during a test run all survived in their new homes, said Rich Harris, a WDFW biologist leading the agency’s work.

After two to three years of removals, goats in park terrain too rough for muggers’ capture would be shot, Happe said. Carcasses would be left in the field or donated.

For goats deemed uncatchable, park officials may resort to gunfire from helicopters.

Hot topic decades ago

To hikers who have snapped Instagram pics with the peninsula’s mountain goats, shooting them from the sky can sound extreme.

The park’s justification is rooted in Congress’ century-old mandate for the National Park Service.

As Congress wrote in 1916’s Organic Act, the Park Service’s purpose is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Park officials believe they ought to restore the park’s ecology to its original state.

“Our mission is to protect these vignettes of America,” said Happe. “They’re beautiful animals, but they’re not part of our ecosystem.”

The nonnative mountain goats harm unique plants growing in the park, according to the park’s environmental-impact statement.

Those claims are hotly disputed.

Decades ago, Anunsen and his wife, Cathy Sue Ragan-Anunsen, led opposition. The two pointed to early writings, including an 1896 National Geographic report, that mention mountain goats on the Olympic Peninsula. Proof, they said, that goats could be native. They also challenged the park’s plant science.

The debate boiled over, and the Department of the Interior hired an independent panel of scientists to sort out facts.

“It was very contentious,” said Reed Noss, a conservation biologist who led the panel. “Our report pleased absolutely no one.”

In a 2000 report, Noss’ team affirmed the park’s narrative: The goats were almost assuredly descendants of those transported in the 1920s.

But the claims of harm to vegetation were backed by sloppy science, Noss said. Physical impacts like rain, snow and ice are more likely culprits in damage to rare native plants, he said.

New science corroborates the goats’ origin story. David Wallin, a professor of environmental sciences at Western Washington University, said genetic testing of Olympic goats corresponds closely to goat genetics in Canada and Alaska, but not to those in the Cascades.

The plant science is still unresolved.

By 2000, goat populations dipped too low for rigorous scientific testing of goats’ effects on the terrain, Happe said.

Now they’re back — and causing problems.

They’re after our salt

Many hikers know too well about mountain goats’ lust for salty excretions. In some areas, goats seem to magically appear when hikers separate from their parties to pee. Campers sometimes awaken to goats licking the salty handles of trekking poles.

Rangers often tell people to toss rocks at the goats to discourage them.

A mountain goat stands atop a crag on Klahhane Ridge, near Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. (National Park Service)
A mountain goat stands atop a crag on Klahhane Ridge, near Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. (National Park Service)

Unlike the Cascades, the Olympics do not feature natural sources of minerals and salt to satiate goats. That became a problem in 2005, Happe said.

“We started to have more nuisances and encounters on our trails,” she said.

The fatal goring in 2010 prompted further examination. In 2011, the park found about 60 percent of goats that interacted with people got too near — such as not leaving the trail. A small percentage of those goats followed people, were hard to chase away or acted aggressively.

Park officials believe the hiker’s death and other reported encounters reminded people that goats were not cuddly creatures but wild animals.

“It had an impact on how people view goats,” said Taylor, the acting superintendent. “Before the fatality, I don’t think there was a full appreciation of that [danger].”

Fears “overblown”

Harris, the WDFW biologist, thinks goat danger gets too much press.

“The fears of killer goats are overblown,” he said, adding that people ought to respect wild animals.

Harris wants conversation to focus on the benefits of adding mountain goats to the Cascades, where they were overhunted.

Decades ago, “We blew it,” Harris explained at the public meeting. “Our agency gave out too many (hunting) permits.”

In the 1960s, mountain-goat populations in the Cascades were reported exceeding 8,000.

“That number now is a fraction of what it should be,” Harris said.

Both Cascades and Olympic mountain goats suffer from low genetic diversity, biologists say. Unlike their Olympic counterparts and even with hunting significantly reduced, populations in the Cascades have shown only meager, patchy growth. Some populations appear stuck, Harris said.

Most species struggle because humans colonize or destroy their habitat, said Wallin, the WWU professor. But there’s opportunity for the Cascades goats.

“Ninety-five percent of the alpine zone in the Cascades is protected in some way or another,” Wallin said.

Extra goats — and genetic diversity — could be the boost needed to see more Cascades populations trend upward.

Harris does not expect salt-seeking behavior to be a problem. Cascades goats largely keep to themselves, he said, save for the Enchantments area near Leavenworth, which is “a perfect storm” of goat territory, premier hiking terrain and no natural salt nearby.

Public not too bothered

After biologists explained their plan at the public meeting in Seattle, Rachel Bjork, board president of the Northwest Animal Rights Network (NARN), rifled questions at the presenters.

Don’t you just want them for hunting in the Cascades? (Harris responded that officials are motivated to grow the Cascades populations. They’d need to see rising numbers before considering hunting.)

Why can’t you use contraceptives instead of killing? (Contraceptives are untested for mountain goats, Happe said, and only last for three years in other ungulates.)

Why allow the option to take some mountain-goat kids to zoos? Isn’t it inhumane to take them from their parents? (Kids could struggle in relocation and zoos are interested in young mountain goats, Harris said.)

Mountain goats move along Klahhane Ridge. The Park Service claims the mountain goats have wallowed in the area and disturbed vegetation. (National Park Service)
Mountain goats move along Klahhane Ridge. The Park Service claims the mountain goats have wallowed in the area and disturbed vegetation. (National Park Service)

Officials were eager to discuss and seemed to have an answer for every question, though after the meeting Bjork said little could convince her that killing a mountain goat was humane or necessary.

“I would love to see less talk of ‘invasive’ and more talk of ‘introduced,’ ” said Terry Stella, also of NARN. “We put them there and now we have a responsibility to take care of them.”

The Anunsens live in Oregon and did not attend. They were disappointed to hear the Seattle meeting hardly resembled the boisterous affairs they recalled.

Perhaps officials were smarter in public interactions this time, the couple speculated. Maybe killing is more palatable with only some goats on the chopping block. Perhaps outrage is still to come, they wondered.

Or, maybe, the park has convinced people it can use a historical wrong (goats on the peninsula) to make another (overhunting in the Cascades) right.