I would like to comment on the debate over introducing mountain goats in the La Sal Mountains. Everyone is overlooking the true culprits responsible for negative impacts on the La Sal eco-system; cattle. Hypothetical damage by mountain goats pales in comparison to the actual damage done every-day by cattle.
The problem is that the cattle are accepted because they’ve been there so long. They are accepted as a part of the “natural eco-system”. They are not a natural part of a mountain eco-system and should never be considered as such. It’s perplexing to me why there is so much discussion on introducing mountain goats and zero discussion on the cattle grazing in this potentially pristine wilderness environment.
Why isn’t the Wildlife Board examining this issue? A very small number of people benefit from a large area damaged by cattle-grazing in the National Forest. Large numbers of people can benefit from a more natural eco-system.
I disagree that The Mount Peale Research Natural Area is protected because I have witnessed cattle intrusion into this so called “cattle free” zone in many locations. Fences are un-mended and cattle don’t read signs. The cattle are destructive for many reasons which I will highlight here.
First, they trample many beautiful wildflowers in areas such as Gold Basin and Moonlight Meadows. By the end of July you will be hard pressed to find many wildflowers surviving the onslaught of cattle moving higher and higher.
Second, all of the beautiful mountain lakes such as Warner Lake are contaminated with piles of manure. I have yet to enjoy walking around these lakes without nearly stepping in a cow-pie.
Third, the streams and spring waters, such as Squaw Springs are also fouled by the cattle. Drinking from a clear mountain stream is not advised since the cows ascend virtually all the way to the headwaters.
Fourth, massive trail erosion occurs, rendering hiking and mountain biking trails dangerous and unsafe for hikers and mountain bikers alike. Cow traffic disintegrates the trail, dislodging rocks, exposing roots and leaving potholes. A group of three or four cows easily undo any hard work by trail maintainers.
Fifth, the cattle damage and contaminate open camping areas. At 7000 feet or higher it should be easy to find a piece of ground unspoiled by cattle to set up your tent. There are very few unspoiled pieces of ground.
The cattle ruin the meaning of a true wilderness experience. It is frustrating to turn the corner on a hike and see a herd of cows in the middle of a babbling brook or wildflower meadow. Or to bike through a glade of aspen only to have cows block your path and have your bike covered from fresh dung. I have gone on summit hikes seeing cow-pies and hoof marks all the way to the edge of the scree and boulder fields at over 10000 feet of elevation.
I ask you, why in the world do the cattle need to graze that high in the mountains? The cattle are perfectly evolved to graze at lower elevations. They only go higher because they can and are permitted to. There are certainly other ways to allow them to feed and water at lower elevations.
Cows, not mountain goats, are the ultimate problem affecting the health of the mountain eco-system. If you worry the mountain goats would damage compact cushion plants and pika habitat, the cattle are already negatively affecting it. I am not a scientist nor do I profess to be one, but it doesn’t take a biology degree to observe what is happening below the scree line. It only takes a pair of hiking boots. Let’s look at the big picture in the La Sals.
Are we going to continue to accept the status quo? With such a beautiful and unique mountain range, why aren’t we doing more to protect it? In this ever crowding world very few beautiful and remote areas remain like the La Sals for the public and future generations to enjoy. We need to come up with a better management plan to put the wild back in the La Sals wilderness. The cattle have acres of Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service land at their disposal. Surely we can secure the higher elevations for our enjoyment and still provide the required resources for the cattle. Then we can worry about the mountain goats.
Michael Dunlavey is a Moab resident, military veteran, outdoor enthusiast and conservation supporter.