Culling the Teton Range Mountain Goats—The Theatrics of Wildlife Management

Invasive species are never a problem until they are. Sometimes nonnative visitors wander in as hitchhikers on shoes, boats, or the backs of animals. Other times, they meander in on their own, searching for food, water, or habitat. Nonnative species can also be the result of an accident, like with gypsy moths, or starlings—the unintended consequence of a love for Shakespeare gone horribly awry.

Yes, really.

In 1890, an amateur ornithologist named Eugene Schieffelin was so enamored with William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, that he unleashed approximately 100 starlings into New York’s Central Park. Only 32 starlings survived, much to Schieffelin’s disappointment, but fear not—those 32 birds produced around 200 million birds, and the effects are still being felt today. Starlings cause approximately $800 million yearly damage to crops and create havoc for the airlines, once resulting in a crash that killed 62 people. (Smooth move, Eugene.)

Once an Invasive Species Always an Invasive Species?

We hope not. The National Park Service (NPS) has dozens of webpages devoted to education surrounding nonnative species across the park network. The page specific to Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) covers everything from noxious weeds (that crowd out native plants) to mountain goats that threaten the Teton Range herd of native bighorn sheep.

Bighorn Sheep are native to the Teton Mountain Range.

GTNP is actively managing the mountain goats, which are nonnative to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem though they’re relatively local—the nearest native herd is only 125 miles away in Idaho’s Lemhi Range. Mountain goats were first spotted in the park in 1979, but it wasn’t until 2008 that they became recognized as residents and not just visitors.

Spotting nannies (females) with kids (young goats) is evidence that breeding now occurs within the park. The mountain goat population has grown from an estimated 10 – 15 animals to over a hundred.

Mountain Goats are nonnative, and threatening the native Bighorn Sheep population.

In the Teton Range, the number of mountain goats and the number of bighorn sheep are about equal, which isn’t necessarily problematic, but the mountain goats compete with the bighorn sheep for resources on the steep slopes of the Tetons. In addition, the nonnative mountain goat herd is growing at a faster rate than the native bighorn sheep and that’s why removal of the mountain goats is imperative.

The native bighorn sheep population in the Tetons is small as far as herds go, and because of their isolated location they’re more vulnerable to disease. Unfortunately, when mountain goats share territory with bighorn sheep, the transmission of diseases, including pneumonia, is possible with high mortality rates among the bighorn sheep.

According to Robert Garrott Ph.D, Montana State University, “mountain goat populations do not appear to be susceptible to disease die-offs to any appreciable extent, mountain goats are effective hosts for a variety of parasites and pathogens that also infect bighorn sheep.”

Nobody is debating whether the mountain goats need to be removed from GTNP, though there have been questions over the method.

Helicopter Sharpshooters or On-The-Ground Marksmen?

It sounds a bit like the plot of an action thriller, but it’s actually the management plan for culling the mountain goat herds in GTNP.

Olympic National Park relocated hundreds of mountain goats—via helicopter!— to North Cascades National Park. The goats are invasive in the Olympics, but native to the North Cascades. They captured, sedated, and then flew the mountain goats. It took four sessions over two years, but the mission was accomplished.

Capturing the mountain goats for relocation in the Tetons is a possibility, but GTNP has too many visitors in the summer, so winter is the only option. They gave it a shot, but December efforts to capture mountain goats yielded a single goat and because time is of the essence, park officials moved on to the sharpshooter option.

The plan was to cull about 75% of the mountain goats using sharpshooters from helicopters. It was determined by both the Park Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department that paid sharpshooters in conjunction with “skilled volunteers” (basically hunters who don’t harvest any part of the animal) would eradicate the mountain goats.

Going Off Script

The first part of the plan wound up being a bust. In January, it was a week-long storm that grounded the helicopters, and then in February flights were supposed to go on for a week, but U.S. Secretary of the Interior, David Bernhardt, stepped in and called them off after a single day of aerial culling.

36 goats were culled by aerial gunning, but Wyoming Game and Fish Department complained that the meat would be a waste, and could instead be donated to food banks. State and park officials are clear that this is a cull—not a hunt—and that the skilled marksmen who are volunteering won’t be allowed to keep trophies or meat. There’s been no mention from the state about the impact of culling the goats during the winter—say, when the grizzlies are hibernating—versus hundreds of hunters on the ground when the bears are preparing for winter.

Act Three

The National Park Service accepted 240 volunteer applications for the ground-based lethal removal of the mountain goats, which is scheduled to begin September 14th and run through November 13th. This seems like an optimal time for the cull because it’s after the busy tourist season, but before snow limits access into the backcountry. But what’s good for some is not always good for all, and the fall is a crucial time in GTNP for the grizzlies, who are protected under the Endangered Species Act.

According to the NPS, “Reducing conflicts with people is the key to grizzly conservation,” but allowing up to 240 “volunteers” (they are essentially hunters, volunteering) into the national park that is supposed to protect grizzlies during a time period (know as hyperphagia) when grizzlies are preparing to hibernate just doesn’t sound like it has the grizzlies’ best interests in mind.

Kristin Combs, executive director of Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, has ideas about how to keep grizzlies safe(r) during the cull. As quoted in Public News Service, Combs said, “It just seems like the chance for an encounter with bears is pretty high here,” Combs said. “And so, we’re concerned that some bears might be injured or even killed during this process, and just want to make sure that the park is doing everything possible in their power to reduce the risk.”

So much could go wrong. The volunteer hunters may encounter grizzlies and because some hunters are resistant to carrying bear spray, there’s a possibility that they’ll have their rifles in hand and will not have their bear spray accessible, say in a chest holster.

After much suspense, wildlife advocates and conservationists hope that the mountain goat cull is a success, but not at the expense of anyone else. As PETA Senior Vice President Lisa Lange said, “Killing one species in order to protect another is like robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

In this case it’s killing one—the mountain goats—and seriously disturbing, if not killing, another—the grizzlies—in order to protect yet another—the bighorn sheep.

GTNP hasn’t returned emails or phone calls to comment on how the volunteers have been educated to travel safely while grizzlies are actively seeking food, or on what protections are in place to ensure safety for humans and bears alike during this unprecedented event that sounds like a hunter’s dream.