Utah looks to expand mountain goat range, but at what cost to alpine landscapes?

(Photo courtesy of the Grand Canyon Trust) An artificially established mountain goat herd grazes in the Mount Peale Research Natural Area in Utah's La Sal Mountains in August 2018. Over the objections of environmentalists, Utah wildlife officials plan to introduce goats into the Bear River Mountains in October.

Mountain goats are among the most majestic wild ungulates roaming the West, but Utah wildlife officials’ latest effort to expand the nonnative species’ range is drawing fire from environmental groups.

This October, the state Division of Wildlife Resources plans to release goats into the Bear River Mountains in the hopes of establishing a herd in Utah’s northernmost range.

In response, environmental groups are urging the U.S. Forest Service to block the translocation, arguing that goats would harm the fragile alpine environments and rare plant communities found high atop Logan Peak, Mount Naomi and connecting ridgelines.

"What is driving this is demand for opportunities to hunt charismatic species," said Kirk Robinson of the Western Wildlife Conservancy. "We are tired of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife telling the state what to do. DWR isn't going to listen to us. That's why the Forest Service should."

Robinson and other critics contend federal policy prohibits the deliberate introduction of nonnative plants or animal species on public lands, especially in designated wilderness areas like Mount Naomi.

But Utah-based Forest Service officials, who administer the mountainous terrain that hosts introduced mountain goats, say they lack the authority to reject Utah’s plans because managing wildlife is generally the purview of the states.

( Lennie Mahler | Tribune file photo) A mountain goat navigates rocky terrain near the summit of Mount Timpanogos, Sept. 17, 2014.

The federal agency did buck Utah’s last translocation effort, which occurred in the Manti-La Sal National Forest in 2013 but backed down in favor of working in partnership with Utah officials to set up a monitoring plan. The project went forward with no environmental analysis, and today about 100 goats live in the La Sal Mountains outside Moab.

"We don't have control," said Forest Service spokeswoman Susanne Tracy. "All we can do is determine impacts."

She said the Forest Service hopes to craft a memorandum of understanding with the state to guide future translocation projects on national forests and establish protocols and “triggers” for removing goats if they are shown to be damaging the land.

Robinson believes Forest Service officials wield greater authority but are choosing not to exercise it.

“If they have a good reason to exclude [goats], they can do it,” he said. “In the case of an exotic species like this, they can say ‘no deal.‘”

The plan

This fall, DWR will capture 15 to 20 goats from the Tushar Mountains and truck them 300 miles north to Logan Peak, according to Jace Taylor, a biologist who oversees DWR’s mountain goat and bighorn sheep program. Established in 1986, the Tushar herd has flourished so well, it has been tapped to bolster goat numbers elsewhere and to establish new herds.

But before Anglo settlement, goats hadn’t inhabited Utah since the ice age at least 14,000 years ago when the landscape was much different.

The mountain goat is considered native to the high-elevation areas of the Northern Rockies and Northern Cascades as far south as central Idaho. Past translocations have expanded their range into habitat previously inhabited by native bighorn sheep in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, largely at the behest of big game hunters hoping for more chances to stalk trophy animals.

But artificially established goat herds have proved vexing for some federal land managers. The National Park Service has been trying to remove goats from Olympic and Grand Teton national parks, but its plans have drawn criticism from those upset by the slaughter of cherished wildlife.

While Utah strives to increase goats’ range, Wyoming has never translocated mountain goats into alpine habitats, which abound in the Cowboy State. Since 1946, goat herds have been established in Wyoming’s Teton, Beartooth and Palisades ranges, but those arose from introductions in neighboring Idaho and Montana, according to Sara DiRienzo, spokeswoman for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“We’ve never done it and don’t intend to,” she said. “Our focus now is on their removal.”

Wyoming is working with the park service to rid Grand Teton of goats, although the state and feds had sparred over how to get the job done. The park service recently abandoned aerial gunning recently in favor of the state’s preference to allow “qualified volunteers” to do the shooting from the ground.

“We are on the same page as far as wildlife management objective. The priority is to protect bighorn sheep,” DiRienzo said. “[The goat] population needs to be reduced because they compete with bighorn sheep for high-elevation habitat and they can spread disease.”

Under careful supervision of park rangers, Wyoming hunters will be escorted into Grand Teton to shoot goats. The skin and skull are to be left in the field, while the meat is salvaged.

“We don’t want the meat to be wasted,” DiRienzo said, “but it is not a trophy hunt.”

In contrast, Utah wildlife policy sometimes favors mountain goats over native bighorn sheep because reintroduced bighorns will likely die if they intermingle with domestic sheep, which carry diseases lethal to their wild cousins.

Last year, the Wildlife Board updated Utah’s statewide mountain goat plan, which calls for establishing herds in the Deep Creek, Bear River and nearly every other range that can support goats that doesn’t already have them. The Deep Creek Mountains were to be the site of Utah’s next goat introduction, but that plan is on pause while officials consider putting bighorns there, according to Taylor.

Ranchers who hold Deep Creek grazing permits are expected to switch from sheep to cattle, which would make this remote West Desert range more hospitable to native bighorn sheep, Robinson said.

Removal is tough

All of Utah’s goat herds were established through artificial introductions starting in the 1960s, when goats were released into the Central Wasatch, and then later in the Uintas, Mount Nebo, Willard Peak, the Tushars, Mount Dutton and, most recently, the La Sals.

Now mountain goats are a common sight in some places, and a few lucky hunters get a “once-in-a-life” shot at a goat. Last year, Utah issued 128 goat tags, resulting in the harvest of 114 animals, including three from the new herd in the La Sals.

The Grand Canyon Trust and other groups fought the La Sal introduction and continue to lobby for these goats’ removal. By allowing the goats, they say, the Forest Service is negating the purpose of a research natural area it established on Mount Peale years ago to set aside a pristine 2,380-acre block for scientific study.

The trust has since established a long-term monitoring program on Mount Peale, and its most recent report paints a damning picture.

"There are major impacts from mountain goats on soil and vegetation, including in areas with [species of special concern] plants such as the endemic La Sal daisy and dwarf mountain ragwort found only in the La Sal Mountains," the April 2020 report states. "We documented over 297 wallows where mountain goats have uprooted alpine vegetation and dug into the soil, creating bare patches that result in vegetation loss and soil erosion in a rugged alpine environment where soil development and vegetation growth are slow."

The Forest Service acknowledged goats are creating wallows but has declined to attribute all negative effects documented in the report to goats, saying some even predate the goats’ presence.

The Grand Canyon Trust and other groups, meanwhile, fear similar impacts could appear in the Bear River Range if goats are released into the Logan District of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest as planned.

Back in 1994, DWR established a herd on Willard Peak, the northern tip of the Wasatch Range with the release of five goats, then again in 2000 with another four, according to the state’s goat plan. That herd grew to 315 individuals by 2011 and spread into neighboring terrain, but the population has since fallen to just 85.

Taylor, DWR’s goat and sheep program coordinator, said goats, presumably descendants from the Willard introduction, have colonized the Wellsville Mountains and have been spotted on Mount Naomi. Accordingly, the state considers the upcoming action an “augmentation” of an existing herd.

Robinson rejected that characterization, saying the project would establish a goat population in habitat where there wasn't one before.

“There are 12 or 13 endemic plant species in the Logan ranger district, most growing on rocky crags. Goats go to those places,” Robinson said. “You can’t say you will remove them if they are causing damage. That will never happen. Who will monitor and what would the trigger be for a decision to remove them? Killing them will be a P.R. nightmare.”