With pressure from conservation groups mounting, the Manti-La Sal Forest Service and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) met on Thursday, March 6 to discuss strategies for monitoring the impact of Rocky Mountain Goats in the La Sal Mountains, and for making tracking information more accessible.
The DWR released 20 goats into the northern alpine areas of the La Sals last September, to the objection of both the Forest Service and conservation groups. Of greatest concern were 10 sensitive and globally rare alpine plant species, including the La Sal daisy that grows nowhere else in the world.
Since their release, three of the goats have died, said Chris Wood, DWR southeast regional supervisor. One died immediately, presumably from the stress of the capture and transplant. The second one died from predation.
“And the third one, we don’t know,” Wood said. “We did find the VHF collar on a fence post. We tried to look in the area around the collar, but there was really too much snow.”
The DWR is tracking the location and movement of the goats via tracking collars, including GPS collars that report an individual goat’s location every six hours. The goats are also fitted with VHF transmitting devices that can be measured when flying over or hiking into the area. VHF transmissions are measured every month or two, Wood said.
Most of the goats are currently in the high alpine areas of the northern and central peaks.
“They have a tendency to explore a little bit when they get released and then come back into a smaller area,” Wood said.
Two goats wandered to and have remained in lower elevations, one toward Adobe Mesa, to the east above Castle Valley, and one toward Colorado.
“We know exactly where those animals are,” Wood said. “They’re kind of hanging out in a drier desert area. We hope that as it warms up the two goats that have wandered will head up to higher elevations. If they don’t move that way they’ll be, I’m sure, victim to a predator.”
Until the March 6 meeting, the DWR did not have a system in place to make their tracking information available to the Forest Service or the public, frustrating conservation groups concerned about the sensitive species.
“I need to be able to see if goats are getting into Mt. Peale natural research area,” said Mary O’Brien, a botanist and Utah Forests program director of Grand Canyon Trust.
The goats’ ability to enter and impact what is supposed to be a natural, undisturbed area “really violates Forest Service policy,” O’Brien said.
In their Memorandum of Understanding, however, the Forest Service and DWR agreed that the DWR has “the primary authority, jurisdiction, and responsibility to manage, control, and regulate fish and wildlife populations on National Forest Service lands.”
“The Forest Service basically had these goats put there over their objection and were left with the impossible task of trying to map out where 10 species of plants and populations are in an extremely rugged area above 9,000 feet over scores of square miles,” said Allison Jones, director of the Wild Utah Project (WUP).
The Forest Service will be mapping the species and implementing a monitoring plan for the first time this spring and summer.
“It is something that wasn’t part of our normal district budget,” said Barb Smith, district wildlife biologist for the Moab/Monticello district of the Manti-La Sal National Forest. “Normally we wouldn’t do it because there wasn’t a lot of activity or things going on in the alpine.”
Smith said the Forest Service knows where the plants occur, but doesn’t have “real good” knowledge of the whole population.
The DWR established a monitoring plan last summer, but WUP and Grand Canyon Trust say the DWR’s system of monitoring is inadequate.
“It’s very general information on all species composition and ground cover, and it’s not an adequate tool to assess specific rare plant populations,” Jones said.
Furthermore, the goats were introduced before data on location, quantity, and condition of the species had been collected.
“We are concerned that DWR put the goats out on the La Sals without adequate baseline data on the existing environmental conditions,” Jones said.
Highlighting the Forest Service policy to protect sensitive species from human disturbance, WUP and Grand Canyon Trust are organizing to help the Forest Service monitor these plants before the goats move around and multiply to the DWR’s objective population of 200.
A guidebook to the sensitive species, produced by Grand Canyon Trust will be available this month. The book includes information and a checklist so that hikers in the La Sals can help monitor the plants, the goats, and the impacts and then report to the trust, who will record the data for reports to the Forest Service.
In July, WUP will lead a monitoring party of volunteers into the high elevations to collect data on four target species of the rarest alpine plants.
“We’ll map them, assess their health and note if there have been signs of goats already in there,” Jones said.
As natural resource stewards, DWR is very concerned habitat conditions and plant communities, Wood said.
“If the data that we collect and the data the Forest Service collects both show that there are negative impacts to the sensitive plants that people are concerned about, we’d take that issue to our wildlife board and they can vote on management actions to reduce or remove goats.”
“Some of these small cushion plants up there are 200 years old. They are very slow growing and they have a very short season in which to grow,” O’Brien said. “Our goal is to get these goats off the mountain, period.”
Forest Service and DWR meet to discuss monitoring strategies of non-native goats in La Sal Mountains
ROCKY MOUNTAIN GOATS: The Rocky Mountain Goat; Wrong for the La Sals guidebook produced by Canyonlands Trust will be available at Back of Beyond Books, or can be ordered by emailing: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wild Utah Project’s volunteer monitoring program will take place July 23 -26. Anyone interested in volunteering can contact Allison Jones at email@example.com. Volunteers must be fit enough to hike on scree slopes above 9,000 feet.