Court upholds Utah’s efforts to relocate nonnative goats in the La Sal Mountains, but environmentalists worry about damage the animals do

Environmentalists’ efforts to rid Utah’s La Sal Mountains of nonnative mountain goats derailed this week after the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the U.S. Forest Service’s decision to allow the state’s controversial translocation program putting goats into fragile alpine areas.

In a decision handed down Tuesday, appellate judges ruled that the Forest Service has no legal authority to prohibit Utah wildlife officials from releasing goats onto state land adjacent to federal land, even if the point of the release was to establish a goat herd in the Manti-La Sal National Forest. The ruling struck a blow for states’ prerogative to manage wildlife on federal lands.

“Federal ownership of lands within a State does not in itself withdraw those lands from the jurisdiction of the State,” senior Judge Bobby Ray Baldock, a Ronald Reagan appointee to the 10th Circuit, wrote for the three-judge panel hearing the case. “Utah, not as a private property owner but in its sovereign capacity, has historically possessed broad trustee and police powers over wildlife within its borders.”

The La Sal goat program isn’t out of the woods because the ruling affirmed the Forest Service’s right to remove goats if it decides that step is necessary to protect the the 2,380-acre La Sals’ Mount Peale Research Natural Area.

Harm is already happening, according to Mary O’Brien of the Grand Canyon Trust. With assistance from the Wild Utah Project, her group set up 45 study sites on Mount Peale soon after the state released 35 goats in the range. By 2017, the research documented declines in the plant life in many of the sites and recorded numerous wallows where goats had removed vegetation leaving dusty depressions.

“It is incontrovertible evidence of damage to an alpine area where plants grow very slowly,” O’Brien said. “They aren’t managing the habitat; they are letting it get destroyed. You put an exotic large ungulate into a fragile alpine area and increase its numbers, it is inevitable that it would be damaged. There is no way it wouldn’t happen."

The trust and the Utah Native Plant Society had sued the Forest Service, insisting the agency had abdicated its responsibilities and should have at least required Utah to get a special permit before installing a nonnative species on national forest. A U.S. District Court judge in Utah threw out the case, and the groups appealed.

The case has been closely watched because it poses broad implications for state control of public lands.

Utah and seven other states, along with the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, weighed in with friend of the court filings, each arguing for state primacy over wildlife.

Reversing the lower court’s decision “would cut deeply into reserved State authority to manage wildlife, at the expense of wildlife managers and scientists working in accordance with the [North American Model of Wildlife Conservation] as well as the preexisting wildlife management authority of the State itself, which Congress has not preempted,” the association wrote in its brief.

The environmental groups argued that the states’ wildlife priorities should not be rubber-stamped at the expense of the federal agency’s responsibility to manage public lands in the the public interest and in accordance with its regulations and management plans.

They believe goats could wreck the research natural area, which was designated to ensure its rare and delicate plant communities are "retained in a virgin or unmodified condition.” The presence of a nonnative ungulate is thwarting the whole purpose for the 2,380-acre Mount Peal designation covering the lofty summits of Mounts Peale, Mellenthin and Tukuhnikivatz, all exceeding 12,000 feet in elevation.

The only members of the public benefiting are big game hunters who might get a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to draw a bead on one of these sure-footed, white shaggy creatures, the trust contends.

“We are evaluating our next step,” said the trust’s staff attorney Aaron Paul, who litigated the case. “Regardless of the outcome of the suit, it is plain that the agency has the power and the obligation to preserve the research natural area. As evidence mounts of the damage the goats are doing, it’s going to be more and more difficult for the Forest Service to make the case that it can’t do anything.”

The Forest Service’s Intermountain regional forester, Nora Rasure, did push back against Utah’s goat-translocation plan in 2013. First, she asked the Wildlife Board to reconsider its decision to put goats in the La Sals, citing concerns about environmental damage to an ecosystem that features 10 rare species that grow nowhere else in Utah. Then she asked the board to delay the project to give agency biologists a chance to obtain baseline data needed to determine whether the goats were degrading the La Sals’ plant communities.

The board overruled her concerns and the Division of Wildlife Resources translocated 20 goats from the Tushar Mountains that fall, then another 15 the following year. As the herd grew to more than 100 with a target population set for 200, the Grand Canyon Trust set up a research program to complement the Forest Service’s own monitoring efforts.

Under DWR’s statewide mountain goat plan, the agency intends to transplant goats into most of the state’s alpine areas above 9,000 feet. The Deep Creek Mountains, towering above the West Desert along the Nevada state line, will be the site of the next goat translocation project.