A large swath of the high Tetons will be off limits next week to buffer the public from contracted aerial gunners who will have their sights set on mountain goats that have invaded the range and put a native species at risk.
The area closure, which includes the north and west slopes of the iconic Cathedral Group, will begin Sunday and continue to as late as Jan. 12.
Grand Teton National Park officials said in a statement that the area will be entirely closed to human entry for “public and operational safety.” The purpose of the mountain goat eradication effort is to help the mountain range’s struggling bighorn sheep herd.
“We’re trying to be efficient and effective — so doing this as fast as possible in the most efficient way — and we believe that the aerial operations does that,” park spokeswoman Denise Germann said.
Park officials have also authorized ground-based killing by “qualified volunteers,” who would hunt the goats. But that program will not occur this winter, she said. Depending on how the initial week of removal goes, it’s possible that another week of aerial shooting will follow later this winter and/or again in the fall, Germann said.
The weather-dependent operation will kick off Sunday with reconnaissance flights to map out where the 100 or so estimated goats in the range are spending their winter. The gunning, contracted to Oregon-based Baker Aircraft, will use non-lead rounds from a shotgun or rifle, with the weapon type depending on the conditions. Tentatively, goat killing will begin Monday.
Germann had no predictions about how many animals would be targeted.
“This will be our initial action, and we’ll see how it goes,” Germann said. “It’s a very unique situation for Grand Teton National Park.”
The park first pitched the idea of eradicating the Tetons’ goats in 2013, though the plans weren’t finalized until late last year. The population exploded in the interim years, rising from an estimated “10 to 15” animals seven years ago to recent estimates of more than a hundred — and with habitat to potentially support several hundred.
The Tetons’ sheep herd, by contrast, is fragile and reeling. The skittish animals, which migrate uphill to windswept ridges, have been pushed out of some of their most ideal habitat by backcountry skiing activity, and their existence is threatened by deadly pathogens that the goats, migrants from the Snake River Range, are known to harbor.
For those reasons, eliminating wild goats from the Tetons has been broadly supported by the public. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department stands behind the effort, even liberalizing its mountain goat hunting season along the periphery of the park — a difficult hunt that was an unexpected success this past fall.
Some changes to the park’s plans were made in response to public feedback to a draft released in late 2018. At that time park officials said they wanted to move quickly, wiping out the goats within three years.
Heeding public input, the park altered its decision to authorize the volunteer-based hunting program. The plans were tweaked to allow for some goats to be relocated elsewhere if suitable areas were identified, and there was also a change so that meat from the killed goats could be salvaged. Recovering animals shot this coming week is unlikely, Germann said.
“We will retrieve carcasses if we can safely do so, but we believe that may be very challenging,” she said. “If we do recover any carcasses this go-around, they will be used for research purposes.”
The research project, she said, is a collaborative effort with the California Department of Wildlife and University of Utah to look at body condition and nutrition in wild goat herds.
Starting Sunday, the closure will run from the west shores of Jenny, String, Leigh and Jackson Lakes, extending all the way over the range to the western park boundary with the Jedediah Smith Wilderness. North to south, the closure will run approximately from Rolling Thunder Mountain and Eagles Rest Peak down to Glacier Gulch and the South Teton. Most of the flying and gunning will be between Cascade and Snowshoe Canyons, where most of the Tetons’ mountain goats reside. Parking areas and access points will be signed.
The time frame for the operation and closure was selected because there’s not a lot of visitors in the Teton Range backcountry right now, Germann said.