Mary O'Brien

Some ideas are just not great. One of them is the plan by the state of Utah to move exotic Rocky Mountain goats to the high, rare, arid alpine area of our small La Sal Mountains, for “once-in-a-lifetime” hunts. The trouble is, it’s the wrong animal, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

It’s the wrong animal because Rocky Mountain goats are exotic members of the cattle family (they aren’t goats). They never lived in the La Sal Mountains or anywhere else in Utah until the state brought them to the Uinta Mountains (whose alpine area is two times larger than in the La Sals). Historically, some desert bighorn sheep lived in the La Sals, but wouldn’t have focused only on the highest peaks as do Rocky Mountain goats.

It’s the wrong place, because native species who do live high in the La Sal Mountains will be stressed or eaten by non-native Rocky Mountain goats. The La Sal daisy lives only in the La Sal Mountains, up where Rocky Mountain goats will be digging up plants to eat roots and take dust baths. Then there are ten other plant species whose only home in Utah is high in the La Sal Mountains. Some of these compact cushion plants can be more than a hundred years old.

It’s where La Sal pika, a little egg-shaped relative of rabbits, spends a lot of its time gathering grasses for the winter. A subspecies of American pika, the La Sal pika exists only in the La Sal Mountains. Pika are limited to cold, alpine communities, which are shrinking as global warming envelopes us. They have been petitioned for listing under the Endangered Species Act before, and likely will be petitioned again.

It’s also the wrong place, because 25 years ago, in 1988, the Manti-La Sal National Forest set aside for protection the Mount Peale Research Natural Area, encompassing Mount Mellenthin, Mount Peale and Mount Tukuhnikivatz. Forest Service rules require the agency to maintain Research Natural Areas in “unmodified condition.” That’s why cattle boundaries lie below Mount Peale Research Natural Area. So now exotic Rocky Mountain goats will be living and digging in the Research Natural Area?

Given that Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) decides where Utah wildlife go, while the Forest Service is responsible for maintaining habitat, it’s not yet clear whether the Forest Service is going to allow exotic game animals to threaten native habitats. The problem is that once Rocky Mountain goats are brought to the La Sal Mountains, no amount of monitoring showing downward trends of some of the alpine plants or pika will lead UDWR Regional Advisory Councils (RAC) and Wildlife Board to remove the Rocky Mountain goats.

It’s the wrong time, because we’re in a drought, in southern Utah, right in the middle of the Southwest global warming target. The snow will melt earlier, exposing plants to Rocky Mountain goats earlier, and will be followed by longer, hotter summer seasons. Rocky Mountain goats never lived in Utah before global warming, and they certainly shouldn’t be brought here as global warming increases.

In May and June of 2013, the Governor-appointed RACs and Wildlife Board approved a Rocky Mt Goat plan for Utah, including bringing Rocky Mountain goats to the La Sal Mountains. But between July 30 and Aug. 7, each RAC will be voting on the La Sal Unit Management Plan for goats, and they can say no to their bad idea. Then on Aug. 21-22, the Wildlife Board could say no. And the Forest Service, if it’s true to its commitment to protect habitat and the Mount Peale Research Natural Area in the La Sal Mountains, can and should say no. After all, the alpine tundra on the La Sal Mountains occurs in only three places in the entire Colorado Plateau, and it’s under stress even without Rocky Mountain goats.

You can insist on the right animal (pika) being supported in the right place (our rare alpine habitat) at the right time (now). You can go to farcountry.org to find names and emails of UDWR RAC and Wildlife Board members, UDWR staff, Forest Service members of the RACs, and Forest Service staff, along with two PowerPoint presentations that provide thoughtful background information. You’re the right animal to go to the right place (your computer), now.

Mary O’Brien, a botanist and Utah Forests Program Director of Grand Canyon Trust, lives at the base of the La Sal Mountains in Castle Valley.