The controversial release of non-native mountain goats in our Cache valley mountains boils down to two questions. What is more important — healthy ecosystems and watersheds, or hunting opportunities for a handful of individuals drawing a lifetime goat permit? Our mountains are already “loved to death” by recreationists and overgrazed by domestic livestock.
The case for exotic mountain goat damage in ecosystems to which they are aliens has been well documented by numerous intensive studies in our national parks and national forests. A few examples follow.
The Forest Service summarized the general impacts that mountain goats can have on soil resources:
“Goats expose mineral soil by foraging, trampling bedding, pawing and wallowing. Wallows are among the most visible and significant consequences of the goats’ presence in the high country. With the resultant loss of plant cover, soil is lost to wind and water erosions. This condition is aggravated and often enlarged as goats return to the same wallow time after time. A small wallow originally suitable for only one animal may eventually become large enough to accommodate a groups of animals. Goat wallows from 3-300 feet in diameter and up to 3 feet deep are common.”
Further, the mountain goats may change the abundance and composition of plant communities by foraging on preferred species. Population growth and range expansion of nonnative species, which take advantage of the bare ground after preferred native species are grazed, can potentially disrupt ecosystem function. Most notable have been the studies conducted in Olympic National Park in Washington that demonstrated high densities of nonnative mountain goats impacted soils, created dust wallows, and affected alpine plant communities, including endemic and rare species. These studies prompted the National Park Service to initiate a capture–relocation program to reduce or eliminate mountain these exotic mountain goats from much of the park.
Opposition has been constantly and consistently provided to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) via public hearings including their meetings regarding the statewide goat plan, via the lawsuit that was filed over the La Sals introduction, attempts to stop Deep Creek introductions, goat releases in the Newfoundlands, and far more. None of these places have appropriate mountain goat habitat.
A recently published seven-year study in Utah’s La Sal Mountains documents the declining condition of the alpine ecosystem since introduction of non-native mountain goats. There were major impacts on soil and vegetation. Over 297 wallows were documented where mountain goats have uprooted alpine vegetation and dug into the soil creating bare patches. Soil development and vegetation growth are very slow at these elevations.
Further, increasing temperature associated with climate change, which will continue to shorten the season of snowcover in the mountains, will likely exacerbate mountain goat damage to vegetation and soil. Our mountains will be subjected to large nonnative ungulates for sport hunting (UDWR 2020; hunting guidebook with mountain goat on cover) and recreational viewing.
Dispersal distances up to 19 miles and exploratory movements up to 38 miles have been reported for introduced mountain goats. Eventual high population density and resource limitation will likely prompt dispersal. Some of these movements are seasonal, with altitudinal migration forcing them to lower elevations during the winter season. These normal movements would place them in virtually all of our endemic plant range.
The primary concerns are for the impacts these wide-ranging exotic animals would have on our native flora and soils, both critical to maintaining healthy watersheds and ecosystems. The Bear River Range (our Logan Canyon mountains) has 13 endemic species of plants only known to exist in this mountain range. The combined impact these animals would have with the domestic livestock (cattle and sheep) which graze and browse these areas, is yet another concern.
A solid case has been made in opposition to releasing exotic mountain goats in Utah’s mountains based on ecological concerns. But there is another magnificent animal that is native and deserves more support. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were native to most of Utah’s mountains. Due to a deadly virus transmitted from domestic sheep, their reintroduction has struggled. Might there be a solution based on better domestic sheep management that could allow the bighorn sheep return?
Given the late announcement to the public and lack of either UDWR or the Forest Service seeking public input, and lateness in the year, there is insufficient time to evaluate what the impact might be, and the burden for doing this falls on the agencies.
Considering the UDWR’s track record on siding with hunter interests, it is imperative for the U.S. Forest Service to weigh in on behalf of maintaining healthy ecosystems and watersheds. They must, at the very least, delay the release of the mountain goats until a thorough study has been concluded determining the endemic plant range and condition.
Now is the time for Cache Valley citizens to contact the Forest Service to express their views on maintaining healthy ecosystems in our mountains.
Jack Greene is a former Cache Valley teacher who has long been active in the local environmental issues. He lives in Smithfield.