Plans by the Utah Division of Wildlife to transplant mountain goats to Cache County are drawing opposition from local environmentalists as the start date for the operation approaches.
As part of a statewide reintroduction program adopted in 2015, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources plans to relocate 15 to 20 mountain goats from the Tushar Mountains in Southern Utah to the Mount Logan and Millville Peak areas. The operation will begin in October, barring complications from the COVID-19 pandemic.
A handful of the striking white ungulates known for their cliff-climbing ability are already present in Cache County, having migrated from two previous transplant zones at Willard and Ben Lomond peaks in Weber County. The Bear River Range relocation is being done with an eye toward seeding a larger population of goats in an area roughly between Hardware Ranch, Millville Peak and the Mount Naomi Wilderness.
The eventual size of this goat population "would depend on what areas they try to establish in,” said Jace Taylor, DWR’s bighorn sheep and mountain goat coordinator. “We strive to not exceed six goats per square mile. That’s a number we feel comfortable with and something we hardly ever get close to.”
For a larger area that includes the Bear River Range, the Wellsville Mountains and several Weber County locations, a goal of 700 mountain goats has been established.
For local environmentalists, any number of mountain goats — which they consider an invasive and destructive species — is too many.
"There will be negative impacts from introducing the non-native mountain goats in the alpine ecosystem of the Mount Logan and Mill Peak areas,” said Jason Christensen, director of the Mendon-based environmental group Yellowstone to Unitas Connection. “Mountain goats graze and dig up alpine plants, compete with native ungulates, create large patches of bare soil for wallows where the goats have removed the alpine turf vegetation and dig into the soil to create places to lay and kick dirt on themselves.”
In addition to general degradation of mountain plant life, two flowers found only in Logan Canyon are feared at risk — the McGuire primrose and the Frank Smith violet.
“That’s a valid concern. I think that healthy habitats are important to everybody,” DWR’s Taylor said. “We’re committed to working with state and federal botanists and employees to monitor that habitat and ensure that it continues to be healthy. We don’t feel that mountain goats have had significant negative impacts on the other habitats that we have in the state, so we feel that we can accomplish both goals of healthy habitats and healthy wildlife populations.”
Elsewhere in Utah, perceived endangerment of rare and endemic plants has led to an ongoing legal battle involving a 2013 mountain goat transplant program in the La Sal Mountains above Moab.
The Forest Service originally opposed DWR’s importation of mountain goats to the zone because of concern the animals could encroach on the Mount Peale Research Natural Area, which was set up within the eastern segment of the Manti-La Sal National Forest boundary for the protection and study of several rare plants. Since the transplant, some observers claim there is evidence that goats have crossed into the protection area and caused damage.
Taylor, however, assesses the La Sal situation as a good one from a wildlife management point of view. “I think it’s going really good there,” he said. “The herd is healthy, it’s growing. Again, I’m sure there are people that dislike the goats being there, but overall I feel like they’ve definitely been healthy and successful, and I think that overall they’ve added to people’s experience of the La Sals, and overall it’s been a positive thing.”
The opportunity for the public to view mountain goats in the wild is one of the stated reasons for the DWR’s statewide transplant program, which gained approval after a public-input and review period in 2015, but Christensen and fellow Cache Valley environmentalist John Carter argue this will only add to ecosystem disruption by prompting people on ATVs, UTVs and dirt bikes to flock to remote areas for a glimpse of the goats.
Another reason for the Utah goat transplants has been to provide a new, desirable game animal for hunters.
“It’s not like we don’t have enough cows, sheep, deer and elk eating aspen and plants in these areas that we’ve got to put more in just so people can shoot them,” Carter said.
In an article for Pacific Standard, an online environmental magazine, writer Adam Federman argued that funding from hunting is what’s driving mountain goat introduction in the West.
“Because state fish and game agencies derive most of their funding from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and taxes on firearms and fishing equipment, they have a vested interest in boosting big-game populations, often at the expense of other conservation needs,” Federman wrote.
Taylor described the DWR’s motives differently:
“Our objective is to protect and propagate healthy wildlife species for Utahns to enjoy. We feel like the mountain goats are a species that people want to have in the landscape, that they’re a valuable part of Utah natural resources, and so where we feel that it’s appropriate and where the Utah public process has led to approval of mountain goats, then we strive to have healthy populations in those places.”
To the argument that mountain goats are not native to Utah, Taylor points to evidence of the species here in the early 1900s.
“It’s hard to say exactly in what areas and in what numbers and at what times there were mountain goats, but at this point we feel like they are an important part of our resources and that it’s appropriate to manage for them,” he said.
The mountain goats will be transported to Cache County by trailer after being captured using net guns shot from a helicopter. Taylor said the animals could be released directly from trailers or, depending on the location, lowered from a helicopter in aluminum release crates.