Blindfolded, sedated mountain goats will soar over the Olympic Peninsula once again.
Beginning next week, a helicopter crew will capture mountain goats in Olympic National Park and the adjacent national forest. Captured animals will be taken across Puget Sound by refrigerator truck and released in the North Cascades mountain range.
The operation, now in its second year, is part of an ambitious, logistically complicated project that aims to correct historical wildlife-management mistakes, to eradicate mountain goats in a range where they’re not welcome and boost their numbers in another.
More than 100 goats were captured last summer and moved. Between 65 and 70 animals survived the winter, estimated Rich Harris, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist leading the agency’s work to translocate goats. Five of 10 relocated kid goats survived, he said.
This summer, helicopters crews will again use net guns and immobilizing darts to down goats from the air, then sling them beneath the aircraft and fly them to a staging area, where the animals receive veterinary attention before traveling.
Park officials plan two rounds of capture this summer. Both periods will last about two weeks. The first will begin July 8 and the second round will begin Aug. 19. Several areas of the park will see closures during capture operations.
More operations are planned for future summers. Goats that cannot be captured will eventually be shot. Park officials have aimed to eradicate the creatures for decades, arguing that mountain goats harm plant life, get too close to visitors, are not native to the peninsula and wouldn’t be there if humans hadn’t brought them nearly a century ago. A hiker was fatally gored by a mountain goat in 2010.
Meanwhile, state wildlife officials and tribes have been keen to move them into the North Cascades, where over-hunting decades ago hampered populations. They hope more goats, and genetic diversity there, could boost populations.
A helicopter crew snatched up 115 goats last year, according to a park count. Six goats tumbled over cliffs or were killed by darts during operations. Two died during transport. Three were euthanized because of suspected disease or behavioral problems. Six orphaned kids were taken into captivity.
By last summer’s end, 98 goats, many outfitted with GPS tracking collars, had moved into new homes throughout the North Cascades.
Once released, some goats found a spot they liked and stayed. Others roamed long distances late into fall, according to a progress report published by WDFW. A female goat released near Vesper Peak traveled about 52 miles to Kachess Ridge, off Interstate 90, according to the report.
Some male and female goats were documented together, based on GPS-tracking transmissions, and it’s possible they could have mated.
Cougars preyed on several goats, according to the progress report. A bear might have gotten to another. One likely fell to its death on a steep embankment. Harris suspects others might have starved.
“In a naturally stable population, you would expect to see survival of adult females at 85-90%, and a little lower for males,” he said.
Still, “the survival rate you observed is within the bounds I would have guessed,” Harris said of the survival rate near 70%. “We also had a rough February. The weather was squirrelly. We did have a month with pretty heavy snow,” which can make it difficult for the animals to find food.
Four undergraduate students at Western Washington University will visit the translocated goats, now dispersed throughout the mountain range, over a seven-week stretch this summer.
The students will take four-day trips, traveling several miles toward the goats’ GPS coordinates and then observing the animals from a distance with binoculars or a spotting scope.
“Sometimes there’s trails, but most of the time they’ll have to do quite a bit of bushwhacking,” said David Wallin, a professor of environmental sciences at Western Washington University leading the project. “The terrain these animals are in is quite challenging.”
The students will watch to see if any newborn goat kids are attached to a collared nanny goat and if the Olympic transplants are mixing with goats native to the Cascades.
“The only way to know about reproduction is to get eyes on the animal and see if they have kids,” Wallin said. “My expectation is there won’t be much reproduction from these animals we released last fall because of the trauma of moving into a new area.”
Wallin said he expected “closer to normal” reproductive rates next summer.