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To many, they are treasured wildlife, but to the National Park Service, mountain goats are a potentially invasive species and unwanted itinerants in several Western parks, including Dinosaur National Monument.
A mountain goat appeared in the monument nearly two years ago to the delight of some wildlife watchers, but now NPS officials are looking to shoot it before the goat and others wandering in from artificially established herds in Utah damage resources and disturb Dinosaur's resident bighorn sheep.
Under a draft plan released Feb. 8, the park intends to shoot any wild goats that roam into its boundaries, which straddle the Utah-Colorado line.
The Rocky Mountain goat is a native of the Northern Rockies, but its range has been artificially expanded south, thanks to translocation efforts at the behest of hunters who enjoy going after big game. In the mid-1990s, Utah wildlife officials established the Leidy Peak herd, about 50 miles west of Dinosaur in the Uinta Mountains, where the goats have thrived.
Now, one appears to have wandered into the park, posing a management dilemma to Dinosaur officials.
In June 2014, two park visitors documented the first goat sighting in Dinosaur, prompting officials to develop the "protocol for exotic Rocky Mountain goat restriction and removal." They are accepting public comment through March 9.
In justifying translocation projects, Utah and Colorado wildlife officials contend historical evidence indicates mountain goats inhabited Western ranges south of Idaho. But the NPS considers goats nonnative to Utah and Colorado, and federal policy bars the introduction of exotic species into natural ecosystems.
"In Dinosaur, we have many endemic plants of state and federal concern," said Emily Spencer, the monument's natural-resource specialist, who drafted the goat plan. "We know from other parks that goats can damage those plants. The potential for introducing invasive weeds from other places is of concern, too."
Although the risk is small, mountain goats can transmit disease, such as pneumonia and paratuberculosis, to native big game, such as bighorn sheep, deer, pronghorn and elk. Goats have also shown an ability to outcompete bighorn sheep, which are native to Utah and are being displaced from their ranges by domestic sheep. Dinosaur harbors a herd of 165 bighorn.
The park lacks the alpine tundra and subalpine environments goats require, nor are there continuous corridors of suitable terrain for mountain goats to move into the monument from outside current herd locations. Mountain goats ordinarily stay above 9,000 feet for most of the year, an elevation that exceeds the park's highest terrain.
Despite the federal policy against introducing exotic species, Utah has been putting goats into alpine terrain administered by the U.S. Forest Service for decades. State wildlife managers first translocated goats into the Wasatch Mountains in 1967 from Olympic National Park in Washington state. This Utah herd grew and was tapped to translocate goats into other ranges; today, the herd numbers about 2,000, with nearly half of those in the Uintas. Goats have also been planted in the Tushar and La Sal mountains. Utah's goat plan calls for establishing "optimum populations of mountain goats in all suitable habitat within the state," including the Deep Creek Range about 60 miles north of Great Basin National Park home to Nevada's highest peaks.
The NPS asked Colorado and Utah wildlife officials to assist in the capture and relocation of wayward goats in Dinosaur back to the nearest herd. But the two states declined out of concern about transmitting diseases, along with the complex and costly logistics of retrieving goats alive from remote places. For this reason, "the removal methods will most likely be lethal and by the use of firearms by qualified NPS personnel." The two states, which typically kill goats that have left their herd areas, have signed off on the NPS goat plan.
"We agree with the monument that it is not goat habitat. I seriously doubt a population could establish itself there. We wouldn't feel comfortable moving that goat back to the Uintas," said Dax Mangus, big-game coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources' northeast region.
Utah proposed that licensed hunters be allowed to kill goats, but that would violate NPS regulations, which prohibit hunting in parks.
Olympic National Park hosted one of the West's first large goat translocations in the 1910s. The animals have since posed a headache for park managers. Goat incursions worry officials in other parks, including Grand Teton and Yellowstone. The draft plan released last week was modeled on one developed in 2006 for Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park.
In June 2014, Annette and Stan Zuber were driving down the Harpers Corner Road on the way to the Green River overlook when they saw a horned white-hair ungulate near the state line.
"It was on the side of the road and went over the ridge. He had topped the ridge, and I photographed it as it was coming down the other side," said Annette Zuber, an avid nature photographer who lives outside of Hayden, Colo. "We were excited, we were giddy."
She sent a message to park officials about the goat sighting, which turned out to be first in Dinosaur.
"They said it was probably a domestic sheep or a guard dog," she said. Her photo proved otherwise. Park officials posted Zuber's photo on social media, asking the public to keep an eye out for the animal.
The billy was seen several more times that summer near Whirlpool Canyon, where the Green River cuts deep though a sandstone gorge. It was observed only once last year, in Echo Park, where the Green and Yampa rivers confluence, an indication that the goat overwintered in the park.
Zuber was saddened by the park's plan to eliminate mountain goats.
"I was taken aback. Why would you just shoot that animal? I don't understand all those technicalities, I'm just a lover of wildlife," she said. "It was a thrill to me to photograph it and prove to the park service it was a mountain goat."