Grand Teton National Park selected 70 teams of volunteer wildlife shooters to embark on a mountain goat culling operation that began Monday.
Volunteers randomly selected for the first week’s cull were expected to participate in a mandatory orientation Sept. 14, including a marksmanship test for designated shooters. To pass, gunners are required to place three of five bullets in an 8-inch group at 200 yards.
Successful teams have between two and six members each. They will seek to shoot goats in one of 10 areas during one of seven six-day culling periods that run through Nov. 13. The park may add another week to the effort.
Goats, considered an invasive species that can spread disease, endanger a dwindling bighorn sheep herd in the Teton Mountains. Officials fear that exposure to the animals could extirpate the native bighorns.
“Non-native mountain goats can carry bacterial diseases that are lethal to bighorn sheep,” park officials wrote in describing the necessary killing. “The Teton Range bighorn sheep population has been relatively isolated and are therefore likely ‘naïve’ [or highly susceptible] to these diseases.”
After deciding the goats must be killed, Park Service officials sought to immediately eradicate them through aerial gunning. A contractor killed 36 in February, perhaps a third of the park population. Gov. Mark Gordon and others criticized that effort before Park Service officials halted the aerial program and authorized the volunteer cull.
This fall’s program is not a hunt in which fair chase and other traditional sporting ethics play a role in restraining shooters.
“Our intent is to remove as many mountain goats as we can — ideally the entire population within the park,” said Denise Germann, park spokeswoman. Officials may even direct shooters to where goats might live.
“If we know exactly where they may be, we will assist the participants,” she said.
Team members who won permits in the random draw and whom park officials talked to are excited, Germann said.
Grand Teton decided to use volunteer shooters after exploring other options. The Park Service has the authority to conduct the program with volunteers, officials wrote, despite the general notion that parks are reserves where killing wildlife is prohibited. Grand Teton also is the site of an annual elk reduction program that uses lottery-selected hunters.
Goats invaded the Tetons after Idaho wildlife officials, years ago, planted the species for sport hunting in Idaho mountains south of the Tetons. They have since spread into the national park.
Efforts to catch and transplant the goats in Grand Teton proved unsuccessful. The park caught 15 goats in five years of trying, and officials said the effort was expensive and that there was little interest on the part of other entities in receiving transplanted mountain goats.
Olympic National Park in Washington is facing a similar challenge after non-native mountain goats were introduced to the Olympic Peninsula in the 1920s. Between 2018 and this summer, wildlife workers captured and translocated 325 mountain goats to the Cascade Range.
Officials estimated there were 725 goats on the Olympic Peninsula when the operation began. It was increasingly difficult and costly to capture the remaining animals alive.
“By the final round, capture mortality increased from an average 5.2% … to 9.1% and flight hours per live capture increased from 0.59 hours … to 1.31 hours per goat,” Olympic Park officials wrote on their website.
This summer, more than 1,200 groups applied to be part of a volunteer shooter effort to finish the job on the Olympic Peninsula.
In Grand Teton, volunteers applied in teams by selecting where they wanted to shoot among 10 park zones. Applicants also selected their preferences for six-day shooting periods. The park accepted 240 team applications.
A random draw selected the teams, Germann said. A team needed to have at least one shooter, but could include up to five other members.
The park requires all shooters, regardless of age, to have a valid hunter-safety card and will check team members’ backgrounds before allowing them to go into the field, she said.
“The first day of each operational period is a training day,” Germann said. “All team members receive training in bear spray deployment, backcountry tracking, radio protocols, species ID,” she said.
Shooters can kill “as many as reasonable for their given situation,” Germann said. When it is reasonable, they should care for and remove the game meat.
“If that is not reasonable, it can stay on the landscape,” she said of a goat carcass. Hunters must mark, by global positioning system, where they leave any goats they kill and cannot retrieve.
Shooters will be allowed to keep the meat from one animal only. Other retrieved meat would be donated to persons or causes in need, the park wrote. Shooters, except perhaps some Native Americans, cannot keep any hide or horns.
Team members will receive bibs, “like [in] a running race,” that identify them, Germann said. “All the team members will become a volunteer of the National Park Service,” she said. “Everybody will be identified.”
Successful applicants are already messaging on Facebook seeking information from climbers and others as to where goats might be located. Pursuit could be grueling.
“Access to and from these zones will involve long travel distances on foot, limited or no horse access, water crossings (including Jackson Lake), and travel in high-altitude mountainous terrain,” Grand Teton warned in its application process. “Volunteers may need to hike up to 20 miles per day at altitude in extremely rough mountainous terrain under a variety of weather conditions.”
Some stalking and shooting may even take place in fifth-class climbing terrain, the Park Service warned. Goats could be as high in elevation as 12,500 feet, according to information posted on the Grand Teton website.
On the other hand, one climber reported recently seeing goats on a peak that looms above Cascade Canyon, a popular hiking area reached by a tourist-boat ride across Jenny Lake.
Shooters must use non-lead ammunition of a minimum .25 caliber with a 100-grain bullet in a bottleneck cartridge. The park encourages shooters to use silencers.
“They’re happy to help protect the bighorn sheep,” Germann said of the selected volunteers the park has contacted.
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