The Utah Wildlife Board ruled Tuesday that mountain goats could become a part of the high-elevation ecosystem of the La Sal Mountains east of Moab, but there is work to be done before that happens.
The governor-appointed board accepted the Utah Mountain Goat Statewide Management Plan as presented by biologists from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) and emphasized that approval of the plan only clears the way for the next step of a possible introduction of the nonnative species.
Conservationists have expressed concern with the impact of such an introduction. The possibility to relocate mountain goats from other successful Utah herds brought concern from conservationists while the management plan was presented to the public at a series of Regional Advisory Committee meetings
"There is really no commitment to specific limits to declines of native plant and animal species in these communities [as a result of mountain goats]," said Mary O'Brien, who lives in Castle Valley at the base of the La Sals.
"This is pretty irreversible if the damage is done," said O'Brien, who also works as the Utah Forests Program director for the Grand Canyon Trust conservation group.
She said the alpine community of the La Sal Mountains is home to 10 plant species only found in Utah and one plant found only on the mountain.
Kent Hersey, big-game project leader for the DWR, said careful consideration has been given to impacts of the mountain goats wherever they have been introduced in Utah and monitoring in other release areas show the animals have no major impact on vegetation.
"There has been 20 been years of data trend plots done by the Forest Service [in the Uinta Mountains]. They have not seen any damage by goats there," Hersey said. "If a population is set and maintained at a low enough density there is not a problem."
Models show, according to state biologists, that the La Sals could support about 200 mountain goats, and Hersey said that is a conservative number because it only includes the available forage going down to the 10,000-foot elevation. More animals could be added if the model dropped another 1,000 feet in elevation.
Other critics of the plan which also includes augmenting existing mountain goat populations and creating new groups on the Deep Creek Mountains and on Farmington Peak claim it is just about creating more hunting opportunities.
Byron Bateman, president of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife (SFW) , said the La Sals are a good fit for mountain goats.
"There is plenty of room. Let's start with a small population and keep a close eye on them," he said. "Mountain goats enhance the overall experience for everybody who uses the outdoors in Utah. It would be a boon to tourism."
Utah Wildlife Board member John Bair, who once served as president of SFW, agreed that mountain goats in the La Sals would benefit more than hunters.
"They have been very positive for the state in all aspects of wildlife hunting and viewing," he said. "Any opportunity to expand that positive to other areas of the state should be done. It would be foolish not to do it."
The board approved the statewide management plan, but chair Del Brady pointed out that before any mountain goats are released in the La Sals or anywhere else in new areas of the state that the wildlife agency will come up with unit-specific management plans that will be conducted with all involved land management agencies and go through another public comment process.
Also Tuesday, the board approved the Utah Bighorn Sheep Management Plan, which again includes augmenting existing populations of the native species and creating new herds.
In other action Tuesday, the board approved Utah's upland game hunting rules for 2013-14. New rules include band-tailed pigeon hunting across the state; it had previously been allowed in only 13 counties. Hunters will only be allowed two pigeons, down from five, this year. The mourning and white-winged dove limit remains 10, but hunters can have up to three 30 in possession.
Hunters accustomed to a Sept. 1 opening of Utah's upland game season for mourning dove, band-tailed pigeon, forest grouse, cottontail rabbit, snowshoe hare and sandhill crane need to be aware that there is a different opening date this year.
State law allows hunting on Sunday in Utah, but not for the opening of a hunt. Because Sept. 1 is a Sunday this year, hunters will have to wait until Sept. 2 to pursue those species.