Through an unfortunate series of political pressures prevailing over science and effective wildlife management in Grand Teton National Park, the first volunteer hunt of invasive mountain goats is now underway within park boundaries. While we must remove this invasive species that is harming the park’s bighorn sheep population, this public hunt sadly stands to do far more harm than good in the long run.
The National Park Service’s guiding mission to maintain the health of resources, including wildlife, can be challenging in the face of climate change, disease, habitat loss and an influx of non-native invasive species.
In Grand Teton, although the Park Service prefers to allow natural systems to run their course, there are times when stronger management actions are required. Specifically, parks are directed to ensure that non-native species do not displace native species and to conserve resources in their natural condition. In these situations the National Parks Conservation Association believes park management decisions should be guided by the best available science and the most effective path to ensure long-term conservation of park wildlife.
It is clear the Park Service must implement a plan that reduces and eventually eliminates invasive mountain goats to preserve the struggling Grand Teton bighorn sheep population. Research indicates this distinct bighorn herd, which has dwindled to only around 100 animals, is severely threatened by the non-native mountain goats.
The goats, which likely migrated into the park from Idaho many years ago, transmit diseases to bighorns and directly compete for scarce resources the sheep need to survive. When park officials released their draft plan for how to address this growing problem in early 2019, the National Parks Conservation Association supported the preferred alternative, which included quick, efficient and humane removal of goats by skilled ranger sharpshooters and contractors shooting from helicopters. The Park Service’s preferred plan of action at the time was backed by an extensive evaluation of how to best address the increasing threat posed by the goats, and concluded that the animals must be removed “as quickly as possible” in order to save the bighorn sheep. The agency rejected the concept of using ground-based volunteer hunters to shoot the goats as ineffective and inefficient.
Last year, initial implementation of that plan was highly successful, with a third of the mountain goat population culled in a single day. But the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, with the support of Gov. Gordon, complained that the Park Service was not allowing ground-based public hunters to do the shooting. That appears to have prompted the secretary of the interior to order Grand Teton’s superintendent to cease the cost-efficient and effective aerial shooting by trained Park Service staff and instead rely solely on ground-based public hunters. The park complied, despite evidence and analysis that this was not the best route.
Hunting is an important part of wildlife management in Wyoming, and many residents rely on wild game to feed and support their families. The National Parks Conservation Association supports hunting when appropriate. However, Grand Teton is a national park. The park drives northwest Wyoming’s economy and draws visitors from around the world based on the unique opportunities it offers to view wildlife. As a community it’s important we support sound management and robust public engagement when it comes to decision-making at Grand Teton.
The mountain goat “hunt” in Grand Teton, which runs Sept. 14-Nov. 13, is hardly a hunt at all. It is the next step in a failed public process, a financially and ecologically costly political interference in an invasive species removal project that could have been completed in days but will now likely last for years.
The factors are stacked toward failure with the park’s choice of a volunteer hunt. We could even potentially see the goat population increase, as goats are prolific reproducers and hunting the animals by foot on the rocky terrain they inhabit takes far more time. The National Park Service has not offered any cost-benefit analysis for ground-based volunteer hunting or analysis of the impact on the health of the bighorn sheep population of the longer time frame public hunting will take to complete mountain goat removal.
This abrupt change of course jeopardizes the future of the Grand Teton bighorn sheep herd. Is the loss worth the risk?