Goats take to the sky once more in the Olympics

Brennan LaBrie
blabrie@ptleader.com
Posted 7/17/19

At around sunrise on Monday, July 8, a helicopter lifted off from a backroad on Hurricane Ridge, its pilot joined by three men loaded with dart guns, net guns and mesh bags. Their quarry: the wild mountain goats of Olympic National Park.

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Goats take to the sky once more in the Olympics

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At around sunrise on Monday, July 8, a helicopter lifted off from a backroad on Hurricane Ridge, its pilot joined by three men loaded with dart guns, net guns and mesh bags. Their quarry: the wild mountain goats of Olympic National Park.

This team of “muggers” as they’re called, were commencing two weeks of capturing goats for transport to the Cascades.

That day, they caught four goats. The next day, they came away with 12, ranging from baby “kids” to 300-plus pound billy goats.

This is the second year of a project to remove the non-native Olympic goat population. It is being done in coordination between the National Park Service, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Leading Edge Aviation, the helicopter contractor, with the help of regional tribal biologists, and a large team of volunteers from surrounding states.

Why It is Happening

The Olympic mountain goat population, estimated at 725 in 2018, was introduced by Canadian hunters in the 1920s. The small population thrived, topping 1,000 by the 1980s. However, the goats present a problem to the native flora and fauna of the Olympics, according to Olympic National park biologist Patti Happe. They enjoy wallowing in the dirt, tearing up native flora in the process and potentially disrupting the usual activity of native species such as marmots. They also have a strong craving for salt, but since the park has few salt pockets, they turn to hikers’ urine for their fix.

“They’ve learned that an easy, ready source of salt is people, and they’re not afraid of people because we’re a national park, and so they will follow you on the trail until you stop to urinate,” Happe said.

When people don’t urinate, the goats can become aggressive. Their aggressiveness has been fatal: Former Port Townsend resident Bob Boardman was killed by a billy in 2010, gored on a Hurricane Ridge trail.

While park officials are hoping to see the mountain goats go, officials from the Cascades are eager to see their goat population increase, as it has fallen over the years and the goats, native to those mountains, are considered a positive addition to the ecosystem.

A capture and removal mission was undertaken in the ‘80s, reducing the population to around 300. However, the goats rebounded, and with the population growing by 8% a year, Happe knew that it would soon eclipse 1,000 once more, and shuddered at the “ecological mayhem” that would ensue. The mission was renewed, with the goal of capturing as many goats as possible and killing the ones that cannot be caught.

Last year, 115 goats were captured, 98 of which were safely relocated to the Cascade Range. Six died during capture, two billies died in transport, and three were euthanized due to disease or aggressive behavior. Six kids who could not be paired with a parent were sent to Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Eatonville.

The success of that mission resulted in its renewal this year, with the first of two two-week periods commencing on July 8, followed by a second period in August. However, the crews face new challenges this time around.

Happe called the goats captured last year “low-hanging fruit,” as many were snatched from areas close to the staging station on Hurricane Hill, where goats had become more comfortable around humans. Thirty-three were taken at nearby Klahhane Ridge alone. On the morning of June 9, Happe reported that three goats were picked up there and “that’s all we’re gonna get.”

Because of this, the crews are having to go to areas where there were no captures or small captures last year. These are often more remote and steep areas, where netting becomes more difficult and dart guns must be used more frequently. These areas are tricky for the crews to chase and subdue the goats, and more dangerous for the goats, as the guns can immobilize them and cause them to tumble off of a cliff.

Katherine Beirne, a GIS specialist for the parks service who serves as helicopter manager in this operation, said that this year’s challenge is not just where they find the goats, but where the goats run and hide.

“It’s not so much the terrain getting harder, it’s the animals getting smarter,” she said. “Goats are kind of escape artists in this terrain. They use all of their skills to avoid being captured.”

“Once you fly over a goat, when they learn what a helicopter means, they’re more elusive and quicker to run away,” Happe said.

The crews are prepared for the challenge. The operation has expanded, with teams venturing out into the national forests, and setting up a new staging area at Hamma Hamma in the southern Olympics. This reduces air time, and therefore stress and overheating for the goats. The crews have learned lessons from last year as well. In 2018, two billy goats died in transport due to their crates being too small for them, and so the WDFW built 10 bigger crates designed for Bighorn Sheep. Last year’s operation was derailed by frequent bad weather, and so this year’s operation was scheduled in the summer.

How It’s Done

In addition to the good weather, the summer brings healthy and well-fed goats, and allows them time to adjust to their new home before winter.

The helicopter crews look for goats in areas where they’re known to be, and try to use the net gun over the opioid-filled darts. Last year, 56 goats were captured by net, 35 by dart, and five by a combination of both, according to a December 2018 progress report. This is not always possible, especially in steep areas where the goats could trip and fall. If the goat is a mother, they hope her children catch up to their sedated mother and stay with her long enough to be captured. They do not sedate the offspring. The family is then marked with the same color and transported together.

Upon subduing the goat, a mugger is lowered to apply harnesses around the hooves, blindfolds around the eyes to calm them down, and horn guards made of rubber hose segments. The mugger reverses the drug to bring the goat’s breathing back to normal. The goats are wrapped in a mesh bag and clipped onto a rope lowered from the helicopter, up to three at a time. They are flown to a staging area, where they are lowered into a truck bed. That truck brings them to a quiet processing area, where they are treated by veterinarians, vet techs, animal handlers and volunteers. They are weighed and evaluated, the adults given GPS collars and the kids ear tags, screened for disease, and injected with drugs such as antibiotics, antiparasitics, vitamin E, and a long-term sedative for their journey to the Cascades in a refrigeration or pickup truck, each in their own crate. Upon arrival, they are hoisted onto another helicopter, and, as the sedatives wear off, are set free into their new home.

Biologists determine the best places to place goats based on historical population data from the Cascades, hoping to fill gaps in goat populations. The goat’s history is taken into account as well. For example, if they were captured in a remote area they are taken to a remote area. They try to make the goats’ new home as familiar to them as possible to raise the chances of their survival.

Some goats settled near their drop point, while others traveled as far as 52 miles in one case, with some traveling for almost two months, according to the report. Their survival rate so far is at 70%, which is lower than their normal survival rate of around 90%, Happe said. Some have likely fallen off of cliffs or starved, while others have fallen victim to cougars and bears.

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