Saving mountain goats with science, guts and good guesses
Washington’s goat population has declined from an estimated 8,555 in 1961 to about 2,815 today. In the Snoqualmie area, populations have fallen as much as 90 percent.
Special to The Seattle Times
TO EMPATHIZE with the mountain goats of the Cascade Range, imagine the apocalypse has come and your extended family members are the only survivors on besieged Capitol Hill. Now it’s time to have children.
Unless you want to marry a cousin, you must reach another band of survivalists on Queen Anne. To do so, however, you have to cross a South Lake Union neighborhood that is swarming with zombies and vampires. (No jokes here, please.)
To seek your mate, you must leave safety behind and risk predators, dangerous objects and disorientation.
That’s the genetic plight of Cascade mountain goat herds splintered and isolated by freeways, roads, logging and hamlets. They risk eventual inbreeding and what scientists such as ecologist Dave Wallin, of Western Washington University’s Huxley College of the Environment, call a “vortex of extinction.”
Inbred goats have less genetic diversity to stand up to environmental change. And smaller mountain-goat herds are more vulnerable to predators like cougars. There are also fewer animals to bounce back if some fall, get sick, die of exposure or become game trophies.
Washington’s goat population has declined from an estimated 8,555 in 1961 to about 2,815 today, according to Cliff Rice, a wildlife manager and researcher with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In the Snoqualmie area, populations have fallen as much as 90 percent.
Furthermore, the Interstate 90 corridor in Washington, and development in the Frazer and Okanogan valleys in British Columbia, impede goats from spreading out and joining new herds.
If they survive to adulthood, mountain goats can live as long as 10 to 14 years. But they can be preyed upon by grizzly bears, cougars and eagles when young.
Scientists suspect over-hunting, however, explains their baffling collapse in parts of the Cascade Mountains. In 2002, the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe headquartered in Darrington, Snohomish County, reported that goats in their area had declined precipitously since the 1960s.
At the same time, goats in a constant hunt for food have overgrazed mountain meadows in some areas. And global warming is expected to shrink the habitat even more as less snowpack allows forests to take over what are now those alpine meadows.
It all sounds pretty grim for the magnificent beasts that have served as the charismatic symbol for the Great Northern Railroad, Montana’s Glacier National Park and the Sauk-Suiattle Tribe, among others.
But scientists, state transportation officials and biologists at Olympic National Park are working to sustain the iconic animal. A key idea is moving goats from the Olympic Mountains, where their numbers are too high, to the Cascades, where the numbers are too low.
MOUNTAIN GOATS are amazing animals — alpine acrobats that use the soft padding of their cloven hoofs to cling to cliffs few humans could climb. Waist-high to us, and weighing between 120 and 300 pounds when full grown, they survive in some of the most challenging terrain in the world with a double-layered wool coat that Indians harvested in the springtime shedding season to make yarn and blankets. The goats also have the ability to eat “everything but rocks,” in Wallin’s phrase. That includes alpine grasses and flowers in summer, and conifers and brush in winter, plus ferns, moss and lichen.
Biologically, they are closely related to other plant-eating ungulates such as goats, sheep and muskox, and in the same family as cattle and antelope. Both sexes are bearded and horned. Steep country is their refuge from predators, but goats do fall, and kids can be plucked off cliff faces by golden eagles.
In Washington’s Cascades, their range includes the Goat Rocks Wilderness between Mount Rainier and Mount Adams, healthy herds at Mount Rainier and Mount Baker, and several regions of the North Cascades. An estimated 40,000 to 70,000 goats live in Canada and 25,000 to 35,000 in southern Alaska.
A goat herd is made up of nannies and kids, with billies roaming alone until the mating period from late November to early December. Males will bluff and occasionally fight to the death for mating rights. The most dominant will father the kids, typically born in late May.
The horned nannies will also fight in defense of their young.
But what the goats can’t fight — aside from the predation of other animals, including humans — is isolation and the lack of habitat that sustains them.
IN TRYING TO figure out how to help the goats, scientists and others interested in them have discovered that mysteries — and challenges — abound.
Since the 1960s when the Cascades population took such a huge drop, scientists have been roaming the high country on foot and by helicopter to try to understand why. Computer models have been built. Lingo includes resistance cost, least-cost path analysis and circuit theory.
Early game managers thought goats would prove as resilient to over-hunting as deer and elk, but instead discovered that they were slow to repopulate. It didn’t help that hunters had trouble telling males from females.
This problem has been addressed via a complex lottery system that allows only about 15 hunting permits a year and raises $42,000 in fees to aid goat recovery. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Rich Harris, mountain goat supervisor at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. If a hunter bags a Washington goat, he can’t reapply.
To understand the more complicated genetic issues, Western’s Wallin has sent more than 50 undergraduates hiking cross-country in the Cascades the past decade to obtain goat DNA.
“The students are surprised by how physically demanding it is to do field work,” he says. “They hike six to 10 miles a day, 3,000 to 5,000 vertical feet, off-trail, in bad weather.”
Hunters have contributed samples of tissue as well. And by using a helicopter to swoop over herds and shoot them with a dart gun, Fish and Wildlife’s Rice and genetics expert Andrew Shirk of the University of Washington managed to do biopsies on 60 goats in three days.
“Rice is such a bad ass,” Shirk says. “He gets in a harness, stands on the skids, calculates the prop wash and somehow manages to hit the goats.”
The animals are no doubt indignant, but the method works. Researchers fire darts with a small hollow tube that bounces off the goats. Then the tubes are collected. Inside is a tiny sample of skin yielding a gene sequence that, along with DNA samples obtained from goat poop, feed a new scientific field called “landscape genetics.”
Just how inbred are goats, and how difficult is it for a randy male to move to a new herd to breed and mix things up? After comparing DNA sequences on more than 200 Cascade goats, scientists found that genetic diversity of Cascade mountain goats is much lower than it is among significantly larger populations in British Columbia.
“There isn’t yet severe inbreeding, but some herds are susceptible,” Shirk says. Most at risk are the goats south of Interstate 90, cut off from contact with the populations that extend all the way north to Alaska.
Curiously, in the Olympic Mountains in the westernmost part of the state, the goat population has been growing even as the herds in parts of the Cascades continued to decline. This, despite the conclusion of almost all scientists that mountain goats are not native to the Olympics. Pioneers didn’t report any, and the Olympics were missing a dozen other regional mammals as well, including the grizzly bear, coyote, lynx, porcupine and pika.
Between 1925 and 1929, hunting enthusiasts imported 12 to 30 goats from Canada and Alaska, but creation of Olympic National Park in 1938 barred hunting within its boundaries. The goat population exploded to the point they were overgrazing and damaging mountain meadows.
In the 1980s, national park workers captured and removed 407 goats to the Cascades, and hunters killed more outside the park. By 1990, the Olympic population had dropped from a peak of 1,300 to about 300, and for more than a decade was stable. But starting about 2004, the numbers began growing again, to 344 in 2011.
Hikers have encountered troublesome goats as the imposing animals follow human trails to lick the salt left by human urine. That’s not a good thing: The goats can become conditioned to humans and compromise their survival instincts while at the same time presenting a danger. In 2010, an aggressive male gored and killed a hiker near Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics. The park has asked hikers to move 200 feet off trails to pee, but the fundamental problem is too many goats in the Olympics, too few in the Cascades.
A TENTATIVE PLAN, to be studied beginning this summer, is to once more move animals from one range to the other. “I think it’s a viable alternative,” says Patti Happe, the Olympic National Park wildlife branch chief, who promises plenty of public hearings.
National Park Service policy already allows the federal government to remove nonnative species when practical. And the wildlife-restoration field has plenty of successes.
From 1994 to 2001, Texas cougars were imported to southern Florida to bolster the genetic diversity of the Florida panther. As a result, the small population grew about 50 percent, to as many as 70 animals.
In Washington, the natural recolonization of wolves has gone faster than expected — at the end of 2013 there were 52, Fish and Wildlife reported — and fishers, a small mammal, appear to be taking hold since reintroduction in the Olympics.
However, there are failures, too. Attempts to sustain spotted-owl populations in the Northwest have been hampered by competition with eastern barred owls. And the Olympic-to-Cascade goat transplants of the 1980s often didn’t work. The goats were put in the wrong place or wandered off and disappeared. Back then, it cost several hundred dollars to transplant each one, and inflation and greater care may push that to $3,000 per goat this time around.
So biologists are approaching relocation with more consideration. “We’re more scientific and open about what we don’t know,” the state’s Harris says. “People care more. They want to be involved more.”
Wallin is using computer models, devised by former graduate student Shirk, to try to better predict where goats should go. Shirk has now moved to a Climate Impacts Group at the UW studying the long-range threats like global warming.
Many questions remain. Why have the goats been increasing in some parts of the Cascades but declining in other parts and failing to repopulate places where they have disappeared? How can we capture them with minimal danger to goats and humans? Where, exactly, should we put any particular individual? What if newcomers bring disease or can’t adapt to their new stomping grounds?
While the work on those questions continues, Washington state is moving ahead with a plan to install 14 wildlife crossings over and under Interstate 90 as it widens lanes east of Snoqualmie Pass as part of a $551 million freeway project. These crossings are designed to promote movement by many species, including goats.
A bridge at Gold Creek just east of the ski areas, for example, was lengthened to give migrating animals a broad corridor underneath. Fencing will be installed to keep animals off the freeway. (There are 1.2 million deer-vehicle collisions a year in the United States, estimates State Farm Insurance, costing $4 billion and killing 200 people.)
Another area of concern is the increasingly busy Highway 2 at Stevens Pass. It is easier for animals to cross than a freeway, but vehicle-critter collisions can occur. No modifications are planned there yet.
Large mammals have used 24 animal underpasses and overpasses at Canada’s Banff National Park 84,000 times over 25 years, scientists estimate. Similar projects have been used in Florida, California, The Netherlands and Australia.
Zombies vanquished! Except nothing is entirely simple when it comes to wildlife. “You have to weigh risk and reward,” says Shirk.
The fewer goats left, the more remote they are to capture.
“The easy goats were gone,” Happe said of the Olympic capture program when it ended in 1990. “It got harder and harder to get goats safely. Is the capture of a goat worth a human life?”
While biologists try to be cautious, state wildlife biologist Rocky Spencer died in 2007 when he walked into helicopter blades while capturing bighorn sheep in Yakima Canyon.
Given all the issues, another, drastic alternative could surface: Write off the goats as an ornery Ice Age alpine nuisance, ultimately doomed anyway by carbon dioxide emissions.
But that would rob the Cascades of a beautiful mammal that always elicits a human thrill.
“The habitat is still there, but the goats are not making connections,” Wallin says. He and other humans still hope to turn that around.
William Dietrich, a former Seattle Times reporter, is the author of 18 books. Reach him at email@example.com.