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When Goats Fly and Wildlife Management Succeeds

The densely forested foothills of the Olympics steeply descend into the clear, cool waters of Lake Crescent. The area is rich with life—fish dart beneath the lake’s surface, emerald ferns cloak the forest floor, and cougars pad softly over rocky outcrops. To capitalist minds, however, there could always be more.

Lake Crescent from Mount Storm King

To some such minds, more meant mountain goats for them to hunt. From 1925 to 1929, 12 mountain goats were released near Lake Crescent. Like many other species, mountain goats are native to the North Cascades, but not to the neighboring (but geographically isolated) Olympics. According to a USGS report, the population more than doubled in 12 years. As a result, in 2018, there were approximately 725 mountain goats in the Olympics.

A tale as old as time, these non-native mountain goats were destined to change the ecosystem that they were not previously a part of. By feeding on sensitive plants and wallowing (rolling around), mountain goats harmed the populations of those plants and increased erosion.

Moreover, unlike the mountain goats' native Cascades, the Olympics do not have natural salt sources. To satisfy their insatiable desire for minerals, mountain goats instead turn to human sweat and urine. That, combined with the fact that mountain goats’ preferred habitats are some of the most popular areas in Olympic National Park, caused serious problems; the worst of which was in 2010 when Robert Boardman was hiking in the park. He was gored by a mountain goat and died as a result. Soon after, the mountain goat was killed.

Klahhane Ridge, near the Switchback Trail on which Robert Boardman was killed

Across Puget Sound, mountain goat populations were declining from over-hunting. A bit ironic, but also a good reminder that non-native species are not harmful themselves. Rather, they are only harmful in some contexts. Enough with the problems though. The over-abundance in the Olympics and the under-abundance in the North Cascades presented a beautiful solution. And through some miracle (i.e. the hard work of many organizations and people), the solution was carried out!

For the past three years, the National Park Service, National Forest Service, and other collaborators captured 325 mountain goats from the Olympics and moved them to the North Cascades. Picture blindfolded goats dangling from bright red helicopters flying over snowy peaks, rust-brown slopes, and rolling alpine meadows. The remaining goats, which are too difficult and dangerous to capture and move, are being lethally removed. And any lone souls trying to "find themselves" deep in the Olympics will likely be too few to maintain their populations for generations to come.

There are seemingly infinite examples of heavy-handed wildlife management going awry. Mountain goats are one such example. But, in a world where every corner has somehow been affected by humans, mountain goats are also an example of thoughtful wildlife management succeeding. Humans are not intrinsically harmful to their environments. We can be, we often are, but we can also be something better.

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