Grand Teton National Park officials are seeking public input regarding their proposal to remove non-native mountain goats from the park.
Recently another Guest Shot author expressed his concerns that the park was inconsistent in its management policies, implying that the park’s proposal was inappropriate. Those comments came from a biologist friend of mine, Bruce Smith, for whom I have utmost respect. But concerning this particular issue, I respectfully hold a differing point of view.
Background: The park’s mountain goats, which number about 100, are not native to the region. They originated from a population introduced into the Snake River Range by the Idaho Fish and Game Department in the late 1960s. They moved north into Grand Teton National Park on their own through the Palisades area. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department manages them as big game with an annual hunting season in Wyoming’s portion of the Palisades.
The problem is that the goats now overlap habitat with the native, isolated and imperiled Teton Range bighorn sheep population, numbering less than 100. In doing so they compete for critical forage and are potential vectors for diseases that can be deadly to the bighorns but don’t appear to impact the goats.
The National Park Service has a policy of removing exotics, particularly those that pose an imminent threat to native species or systems. Smith implies that the proposed goat removal is inconsistent with how the park manages other exotics and is therefore “arbitrary, selective and inconsistent.”
He presents the example of the lake trout removal program in Yellowstone Lake versus the non-action taken to remove lake trout and also the non-native brook, brown and rainbow trout from Teton park waters.
First, Yellowstone National Park has exclusive jurisdiction over its wildlife, and Grand Teton National Park does not. Teton park shares fisheries management with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, an agency that, for better or worse, is not about to agree to the elimination of a very popular sports fisheries program.
Second, I believe all the exotic trout were in the valley’s waters before Grand Teton became a national park, whereas the Yellowstone lake trout were illegally introduced relatively recently. (This is meant as an explanation, not a justification, for the presence of non-native fish in Grand Teton.)
I believe Smith misleads the public when he implies that the park has not effectively applied its responsibility to remove exotic plants, such as spotted knapweed, leafy spurge, hounds tongue and thistles.
During my 48 years in the valley I have seen the park go to great lengths to eradicate many of the exotics mentioned. Its efforts have produced visible successes. One example is the near elimination of the once extensive thistle patches in the Elk Ranch and Kelly hayfields.
The park’s exotic weed removal efforts also include annual contracts with the Teton County Weed and Pest District and contracts with several private entities focused on the park’s river corridors, construction sites and the backcountry. And today the park has a dedicated full-time staff addressing weed control along with several seasonal crews of field technicians.
To imply that management inconsistencies exist between exotic weed management and goat management is grossly misleading and counterproductive.
Another argument made was that the park is home to exotic birds species such as the English sparrow and European starlings. Fair enough. However, those species have a centuries-old, nationwide distribution, and to spend energy and funds trying to eliminate them from the valley or even the park would be a quixotic effort.
Could more be done to control exotics of all kinds? Of course, but this is where limited budgets and identifying priorities comes into play.
But whatever we might think of the park’s inconsistencies regarding management policies, this mountain-goat-versus-bighorn-sheep issue needs to be addressed directly and independent of other policy arguments.
The mountain goats pose a clear and present threat to the bighorns and to the very integrity of the Teton Range high-elevation ecosystem they depend upon for their year-round survival. If allowed to thrive the goats may very well write the final chapter in the extinction of this isolated, native and ecologically important Grand Teton bighorn sheep population.
The threats are too real and significant to be ignored because of perceived management inconsistencies. The proposed actions are justified and consistent with common sense, the law and policy.
As a bona fide Capricorn (“the goat”) and ardent and unabashed fan of these shaggy, tough and tenacious goats, it truly pains me to conclude that the Teton park mountain goats have to go.
May they continue to thrive on their native range.