Mountain Goat Relocation Project Aims to Protect the Olympics Ecosystem

This summer, mountain goats are on the move once again as an ambitious relocation project attempts to transfer them from one mountain range to another
MOVING ON. Mountain goats like these in the Olympic Mountains are being moved to locations in the Cascades. Around 100 were relocated last summer; more have been moved this summer

This article appears in print in the September 2019 issue. Click here to subscribe.

The view from the helicopter was simply stunning. We had taken off on an early morning from Darrington, and the pilot found a gap in the clouds lying over the North Cascades. As we rose above them, the sunlight glanced off their fluffy tops and lit up the peaks—White Chuck, Pugh, Whitehorse, Three Fingers and Sloan emerged radiant.

With me on that mid-September morning was my fellow wildlife biologist and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) coworker Rich Harris. We were on our way to Barlow Pass on the Mountain Loop Highway to meet some mountain goats.

They’d been captured in Olympic National Park the previous day and had been driven to the Cascades overnight. Our helicopter was about to airlift them from Barlow Pass up into the high country, where we would slide open the doors on their crates to release them into their new home.

Many locals may have learned about the mountain goat relocation project (see sidebar at bottom of article) from having seen dramatic photos of the relocation last summer that caught a goat hanging midair in a harness from a helicopter. And they may also be aware of why the goats are being moved: the damage to the fragile alpine environment caused by these animals, which are not native to the Olympics.

What’s less known is how well the relocation experiment is playing out. And that morning almost a year ago was just the beginning of the story. Additional mountain goat relocations have taken place this summer; depending on how many are relocated, the last mountain goats in the Olympics may need to be lethally removed in the final stage of this project, sometime in the future.

About a decade ago, the WDFW began developing plans with the U.S. Forest Service and tribal partners to relocate mountain goats into areas where their populations are low, including the Cascades.

Having recently completed a research project on mountain goats, I used information gathered about their populations and movements from that study—as well as help from the collaborative relationships with other land managers and Western Washington University—to lead the effort to determine how best to restore the mountain goat population in the Cascades. We all saw the obvious benefits of taking mountain goats out of the Olympics and moving them to the areas of the Cascades where the goat populations had declined.

LOOK, UP IN THE AIR! Sedated mountain goats are picked up by helicopter and moved to a staging area in the Olympics before being put in crates and transported by truck to another staging area in the Cascade Mountains. Photograph by Janis Burger/NPS

What ensued was not the capture of mountain goats, at least not at that point, but meetings, many meetings. Meetings to refine the Cascade release plan, meetings to figure out funding to pay for these operations, to plan the logistical requirements for helicopters, to coordinate personnel, and to make sure all activities complied with laws and regulations.

One of the challenges for my colleague Rich was to find as many locations as possible within our target areas: sites where a forest road came close enough to mountain goat habitat that ferrying the goats via helicopter would not take too long or be too expensive. There were many other logistical concerns, everything from ensuring the goats’ safety during the transportation process to figuring out where to get the number of crates needed to transport them.

Finally, over a two-week period last September, 100 of the approximately 700 mountain goats in the Olympics were moved to six sites in the Cascades. The adults—73 in all—were fitted with GPS tracking collars, which send information on movements and survival via satellite. (Mountain goat kids are too small to carry these collars.)

Although we did our best to select desirable release locations, we also knew from experience that relocated mountain goats often move around a lot initially, though we’re not sure why. 

Over the next months, the GPS collars sent us daily locations for the mountain goats. We learned that one nanny, 80 days after she was cut loose on Stillaguamish Peak, was 32 miles away and had covered a total distance of about 125 miles, traversing a litany of North Cascade peaks during her travels: Vesper Peak, Red Mountain, Mineral Butte, Troublesome Mountain, Frog Mountain, across the Cascade Crest to Whittier Peak, the White Mountains, Estes Butte, then back west across the White Mountains again to Indian Head Peak, Pilot Ridge, Spring Mountain, Mount Forgotten, back to Stillaguamish Peak, north to Jumbo Mountain and finally, west to Whitehorse Mountain (phew!). Another female traveled about 80 miles over 45 days, from Vesper Peak to Kachess Lake. But these were the exceptions. Many goats were within 10 miles of their release site after 100 days.

In any case, with snow in the high country, winter put an end to long-distance travel. When spring arrived, 80 percent of the adults were still alive, despite the challenges of adjusting to their new situation. And the kids? Without GPS collars, tracking their progress is much more difficult, but there is indication that half of the kids released made it through the winter. Given the challenges these young goats faced during their first winter in their new home, we found this encouraging.

ALMOST HOME: The crated goats arrive at their staging area in the Cascades; from here, they’ll be lifted again by helicopter, while in their crates, to their final release area in the high country

At press time, the WDFW and Olympic National Park were in the process of completing two more relocation efforts. If things go according to plan, they’ll repopulate areas where mountain goat numbers have been depleted, and once again, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts will encounter these animals often in the western Alpine Lakes Wilderness and north toward Monte Cristo, Vesper and Sperry peaks.

As Rich Harris puts it, “I hope people 20, 30, 40 years from now will be able to say, ‘Oh yeah, we have pretty healthy goat populations throughout the North Cascades.’” And in the Olympic Mountains, when the goats are gone, the unique alpine ecosystem there will also become more like it used to be.

The Backstory

How mountain goats wound up in the Olympics

To understand how mountain goats came to populate the Olympic Mountains, you need to understand the unique ecosystems and geography of both the Cascades and the Olympics. About 17,000 years ago, Puget Sound looked like Greenland, covered by a layer of ice thousands of feet thick. When the ice retreated north, plants and animals—including mountain goats—came to the Cascades. But without mountainous terrain connecting the Cascades and Olympics, the goats never traversed to the Olympics.

“The Olympic Mountains are a really unique ecosystem,” explains Patti Happe, a wildlife biologist with Olympic National Park. “If you look from space, it jumps out at you that we’re just this mountain island that’s really not connected to any other mountain system.”

The goats were introduced to the Olympics in the 1920s by sportsmen (who presumably hoped to eventually hunt them) and flourished. But, while over the centuries alpine plants in the Cascades evolved to accommodate grazing, the alpine plants in the Olympics did not. By the 1980s, the goats’ exploding population resulted in considerable degradation of alpine habitats in the Olympics, prompting the discussion by the National Park Service and the eventual decision to remove the goats from the park.

Meanwhile, in the Cascades, mountain goats became highly sought after by hunters. Fifty years ago, based on their understanding of mountain goat biology at the time, wildlife managers treated mountain goats more or less like deer and allowed hunting. Eventually, biologists learned that mountain goats reproduce much more slowly than deer; but by then, many of the mountain goat populations in the Cascades had declined significantly.

These days, very few permits to hunt mountain goats in the Cascades are issued, and only for particular areas where the mountain goats are doing well. In areas where mountain goat populations have remained low, supplementing those populations with goats from the Olympics makes sense.

Editor’s note: Cliff Rice is a retired wildlife biologist who worked for the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife for many years.

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