Mountain Goats in the LaSal's

A mountain goat is seen digging a wallow in the La Sal Mountains. [photo credit Marc Coles-Ritchie / Grand Canyon Trust]

If you’ve spent time hiking in the rocky peaks of the La Sal Mountains above Moab, you may have caught a glimpse of fluffy white ungulates among the rugged talus slopes.

Goats are not native to the La Sals but were brought to the area by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources in 2013. Since then, the herd has grown to over 100 goats and spread beyond the state-owned parcel where they were initially released. The Grand Canyon Trust, a conservation advocacy group that focuses on the Four Corners region, has been fighting to get the nonnative goats removed from the Research Natural Area since their arrival.

How the goats arrived

DWR Conservation Outreach Manager Aaron Bott explained that state biologists thought mountain goats could fill a vacant ecological niche in the La Sal mountains. Native bighorn sheep had died out, possibly from exposure to diseases among domestic sheep herds. Since mountain goats’ diet overlaps with bighorn sheep diet by over 98%, Bott said, that made them an apt stand-in for the missing sheep.

“Wildlife consuming native plants in the La Sal Mountains has been a natural process for millennia, and the introduction of mountain goats was a chance for the ecosystem to work as a complete biological unit once again,” Bott said.

Bott said the DWR initially collaborated with the US Forest Service and that the federal agency did not express opposition until after the designated regional discussion process was over. The DWR, which is the authority of wildlife management in Utah, continued with the goats’ relocation despite objections.

In 2013, 20 goats were captured by helicopter in the Tushar Mountains in southwest Utah and trucked to the La Sals; in 2014, 15 more were transplanted. The goats have reproduced to an estimated herd of 105 as of a 2019 aerial survey, Bott said. The DWR’s goal is a population of about 200.

In 2018, the DWR released a Utah Mountain Goat Statewide Management Plan, which lists the agency’s management goals as establishing populations of mountain goats, providing quality habitat, and providing quality hunting and viewing opportunities for recreators. Two hunting permits for goats in the La Sals were issued in 2018.

The document also preemptively addresses conservation concerns, asserting that soil disturbance caused by goats is comparable to that caused by elk and bighorn sheep and that these disturbances have been shown to recover.

Calls for removal

However, land managers in other states have decided that nonnative goats do have a negative impact on ecosystems. Olympic and Grand Teton National Parks have both, in recent years, begun programs to remove mountain goats stating that they threaten visitor safety and damage vegetation.

In the La Sals, conservation groups worry that the goats are damaging native plants. The Mount Peale Research Natural Area supports rare plants like the La Sal daisy (Erigeron mancus), which is found nowhere else in the world. Research Natural Areas harbor rare, high-quality ecosystems or habitats, and are supposed to be “managed in a way that allows natural processes to predominate, with minimal human intervention,” according to a USFS website on RNAs. Ten other plant species in the Mount Peale RNA represent the only known Utah populations of those plants.

In 2016, the Grand Canyon Trust, along with the Utah Native Plant Society, sued the USFS to get the mountain goats removed from the Mount Peale RNA.

The 2017 ruling on the suit stated that the Forest Service had not made a final decision on mountain goat management, and therefore there was no final agency action to challenge—the case was dismissed.The two conservation groups appealed and were rejected in 2019.

Researching the impacts

The advocacy groups haven’t given up, however.

In 2019, the Grand Canyon Trust conducted a survey of mountain goat impacts in the Mount Peale RNA, and they released their findings this April. The survey built on previous observations recorded in 2017, as well as findings made by the conservation group Wild Utah Project in 2015 and by the Forest Service in 2008.

Mary O’Brien is the Grand Canyon Trust Utah Forests program director and holds a doctoral degree in botany. She participated in the 2019 survey and authored the report along with Utah Forests Program Associate Marc Coles-Ritchie.

O’Brien said the surveyors focused on “wallows” created by goats—patches of bare soil that the animals dig out of the vegetation so they can roll in the dirt to help remove insects, shed fur, and have a level spot to rest. The wallows provide measurable impacts that can be traced to the goats.

“This is the one thing that’s clearly quantitative that damage to the RNA is happening by goats,” O’Brien said.

The surveyors counted over 297 wallows, confirming that they were made by goats by the presence of goat scat, hoofprints, or fur. The report concluded that the goats had “major impacts” on soil and vegetation, including “species of conservation concern” like the La Sal daisy.

The Forest Service has been conducting its own extensive studies, including investigations into the impacts of mountain goats.

Tina Marian, who was serving as the acting district ranger of the Manti-La Sal National Forest this spring, said in an email to the Moab Sun News that the agency had been monitoring alpine vegetation in the Mount Peale RNA in cooperation with the DWR since 2013. The two agencies are meeting monthly to analyze the data they’ve collected and to work on “setting trigger points and possible management options,” Marian said.

The Forest Service’s conclusions on the impacts of goats in the Mount Peale RNA are less clear than those reached by the Trust.

“Given the naturally high variability in the data from a complex alpine ecosystem, some results are inconclusive but important trends appear to be emerging, such as the effects of both ungulate (which includes mountain goats, mule deer and elk) use and recreation on alpine vegetation and soils,” said Marian.

The Forest Service contends that the “turf shearing” attributed to mountain goat activity in the Trust report can also occur naturally through wind erosion. However, the Forest Service reports that it is continuing to collect plant and ground cover data.

In O’Brien’s interpretation of RNA regulations, all the research is somewhat beside the point. The Grand Canyon Trust’s report refers to a section of federal code that states, “Research Natural Areas will be retained in a virgin or unmodified condition except where measures are required to maintain a plant community which the area is intended to represent.”

“To us, it’s so clear. The regulation is clear, and they’re not following the regulation,” O’Brien said.

Timing

“The timing is important,” O’Brien said of the release of the Grand Canyon Trust’s study.

The current Manti-La Sal National Forest management plan was released in 1986 and the agency says they hope they will be able to begin the public scoping process on a new draft management plan this summer.

“The revised Forest Plan will have components regarding the management of habitats for all wildlife species,” Marian wrote when asked if the new plan is likely to include a strategy to remove or manage the goat population. “There will be direction for achieving sustainability and resiliency, and for minimizing risks to vegetation and its composition and structure.”

In O’Brien’s view, the Forest Service has been hesitant to take action on the goats in order to avoid souring their relationship with the state wildlife agency. O’Brien is sure the new plan will push the Forest Service to a stance on the issue.

“They’re going to have to be making a decision about what they’re going to be doing about goats,” she said, adding, “Eventually we will have to litigate again if they won’t do anything about it.”