Driving down the Snake River canyon it’s an auspicious day when you spot furry white dots along the canyon cliffs.
The regal mountain goats, perched above the highway in their impossibly white coats, inspire a sense of awe and wildness.
Mountain goats are magnificent to watch. And that makes Grand Teton National Park’s decision to kill goats — the ones found farther north in places like Cascade and Snowshoe canyons — feel contradictory for an agency charged with safeguarding the nation’s wild treasures.
But it’s another treasure, often hidden far from view except to some peak-bagging adventurers, that’s pushing the decision to kill the goats.
Biologists believe the Tetons’ fragile and native bighorn sheep herd is directly threatened by the invading goats. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game introduced the mountain goats to the Palisades — to create big game hunting opportunities — in the late 1960s.
In contrast, the bighorn sheep represent a population that has been here since the last Ice Age despite being isolated to a tiny, rugged patch of the Tetons where they’ve somehow hung on despite avalanches, disease and genetic inbreeding. The rare herd’s numbers hover from 100 to 150, enough animals for the herd to persist, though few enough to leave it in constant peril.
Protecting this ancient herd falls within the Park Service’s mission to preserve natural and cultural resources for enjoyment, education and inspiration of future generations.
We’re certain the agency takes no pleasure in killing mountain goats for the sake of the sheep.
But the National Park Service’s controversial plan — temporarily delayed by weather — to close a portion of the high Tetons for a short period to shoot the goats from the air has a carefully considered conservation aim. As cruel as it sounds, the move should be humane in its swiftness.
In the past five years alone, goat numbers have increased nearly tenfold, while the bighorn herd has shrunk by a third. Goats now outnumber native sheep. Staying true to science and the Park Service’s mission, let’s avert a total collapse of this woolly link to our Ice Age past.