Over the last couple of weeks, The Herald Journal has had several articles discussing the introduction of mountain goats to the peaks above Logan. To be exact, these are considered augmentation efforts rather than an initial transplant. The state’s map, in fact, shows goats are already here (See Figure 1 and Appendix B of the Utah Mountain Goat Statewide Management Plan) but this was probably just being a bit forward looking. Given the proximity of other populations, however, it was just a matter of time before goats showed up on Mount Logan or the Wellsvilles with or without the states help.
Part of the concern over whether they should be introduced comes from a disagreement over whether mountain goats were native but eliminated in the early 1900s. The strongest evidence to support their being native were early Forest Service reports. In contrast, there are no supporting photographs or any respected scientific reviews I could find whose historic distribution maps included Utah. That they are a non-native species means they could have unintended consequences. Most of these worries have to do with native plant communities and soil disturbance.
The mountain goats currently in Utah came from introductions that commenced in 1967. That year six goats from Olympic National Park were released into the Lone Peak area southeast of Salt Lake City. Since that initial effort there have been many additional transplant efforts that have moved nearly 300 mountain goats to different parts of the state. Utah’s current population hovers a bit under 2000 animals. The last several years have seen around 110 permits offered with hunters having a greater than 90% success rate.
While it is likely true mountain goats are new to Utah’s alpine landscapes, it would be incorrect to say these areas have not been grazed by wild ungulates. Bighorn sheep long roamed these mountains as indicated by their presence in so many of the region’s petroglyphs. This may cause some to ask, why not reintroduce bighorn sheep? The problem is they easily catch pneumonia from domestic sheep which is fatal to bighorns. Given domestic sheep remain at-large on local Forest Service lands, this makes it difficult to successfully reintroduce wild sheep in this area.
Controversy over the introduction of mountain goats is not new and began in earnest in Olympic National Park in the 1990s. Since that time there have been efforts to remove goats from several National Parks, as these areas have a stronger legal mandate to protect or restore native ecosystems. Management direction is different for Forest Service lands. Certainly, the Forest Service has the responsibility to protect native species, but the agency generally defers to the states when it comes to wildlife management.
Mount Logan and Naomi Peaks are about the same elevation as Willard and Ben Lomond Peaks suggesting this augmentation effort could be successful. The big difference are the mountains above Ogden provides many more cliff lines than those bordering Cache Valley. This may make our mountain goats more prone to predation. The biggest long-term risk to mountain goat existence in Utah is a warming climate may reduce the area covered by alpine ecosystems.
Certainly, hunters alone should not be driving this decision. But as there will likely never be more than 10 tags for this area, they will not be the primary individuals that benefit from this action. It will be the hikers, photographers, and other visitors to our mountains that will receive the greatest benefit. While I have not seen any surveys, I think most people who spend time in Northern Utah’s high country would be thrilled to see a goat. Although the experience may be a little zoo-ish as they aren’t native, it will still be an experience that occurs only in a few other places in the continental United States.
So the question you need to ask yourself is which is more important on public lands with a multiple use mandate: providing greater protection for native ecosystems or adding a charismatic exotic mammal to replace a lost native species? For me, it is easy to argue either side of this question. In such situations I tend to lean toward the state’s decision as they should have a better handle on what the public desires. This suggests trying goats in the region’s mountains. That said, it will be important for the state and the Forest Service to monitor the effects of these goats. If meaningful changes do occur, lethal removal by hunters could quickly eliminate their presence. To make my point, this year over 1200 groups of individuals volunteered to remove mountain goats from the Olympic National Park.