Rocky Mountain goats grazing in west-central Utah. [Photo courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources]

Non-native Rocky Mountain goats are trampling and grazing on rare and sensitive plants in the Mount Peale Research Natural Area in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, according to findings by the Wild Utah Project, a nonprofit organization that provides scientific support to conservation groups and works collaboratively with state and federal agencies.

Seventeen researchers with Wild Utah Project and Grand Canyon Trust camped out in the La Sal Mountains from July 16 to 18, where they surveyed the Mount Peale RNA to check for both goat and human impacts.

Wild Utah Project executive director Allison Jones said they found goat hoof marks on the rare cushion plant, goat trails on ridges that cause erosion, and several wallows – deep depressions in the soil where the goats wallow and churn up soil. Of eight rare plant species of concern to the Forest Service, the group found seven in the RNA, Jones said.

“There was evidence of goats grazing those rare plants,” Jones said.

Jones alleges that the Forest Service is in violation of its own policy and regulations by allowing exotic goats to be introduced into the La Sal Mountains.

The 2,400-acre Mount Peale RNA was designated in 1988 to “protect the unique resources found on public lands,” including the La Sal daisy, a flower found nowhere else in the world. Forest Service regulations state that exotic plants or animals are to be removed from RNAs whenever possible.

Over the past two years, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has flown helicopters into central Utah’s Tushar Mountains to capture mountain goats for the purpose of introducing them into the La Sals. From helicopters, DWR employees shoot net guns to entangle the goats, which are then blindfolded, and airlifted to a staging area in the Tushars, the agency’s wildlife program manager Guy Wallace explained. The goats are then radio collared, put in a box and brought by horse trailer to the La Sal Mountains.

Thus far, 35 goats have been transplanted into the La Sals. The agency’s goal is to put 200 goats there for the purpose of hunting and wildlife viewing.

“The hunting tags will be highly sought-after, possibly costing as much $30,000 or more, which raises a lot of money for conservation,” said Mark Thayn, owner of La Sal Mountain Outfitters. “…I think it’s absolutely fantastic to have the goats up there, not just for hunting, but it adds a certain beauty to the La Sals.”

Last month the Grand Canyon Trust, the Utah Native Plant Society and Wild Utah Projectpetitioned U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in Washington, D.C., asking the federal agency to “immediately remove or arrange for the immediate removal of all mountain goats from the La Sal Mountains,” and “prohibit the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources from introducing additional goats to the La Sal Mountains.”

In an email to the Moab Sun News, Deputy Regional Forester of the Intermountain Region Chris Iverson said, “We continue to have concerns about the presence of mountain goats on the La Sals because of the potential effects on the Research Natural Area and for the conservation of rare plants. We continue to work in partnership with the DWR to evaluate the impact of goats on the natural resources in the La Sal Mountains.”

Some plants take 100 years to grow

Moab resident and Sierra Club member Wayne Hoskisson served on the Division of Wildlife regional advisory council when the DWR decided to relocate goats to the La Sals. Utah began introducing the goats to the state from the Olympic Peninsula, in the 1960s, Hoskisson said.

“I was opposed and I remain opposed to introducing goats to the La Sal Mountains,” Hoskisson said. “Money drove this, not biology. The money (from a large hunting group) was in place to do this before the transplant was approved.”

The goat program is supported by various groups, such as Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, who give a percentage of monies received from hunting permits to the Division of Wildlife Resources.

Justin Shannon, DWR big game coordinator, said the goats were first transplanted to the La Sals two years ago to fill a niche.

However, mountain goats require a higher-elevation habitat than that of desert bighorn sheep, said Tony Frates, Utah Rare Plant guide coordinator for the Utah Native Plant Society. Frates contends that the La Sals do not have a large enough high-elevation habitat to support the mountain goats.

Some rare plants in the RNA take a century to reach maturity, Frates said. A goat, or someone hunting for the goat can step on the plant and kill it in an instant, he said.

“Our position is they had no business releasing those goats in the La Sals,” whether the RNA was there or not, Frates said. “They’re a non-native species.”

But Thayn said he believes the goats may actually be beneficial to plant life in the area.

“I expect that the La Sal daisy will actually expand as the goats eat it and spread its seed (through their waste),” he said.

The presence of an RNA only strengthens the argument because it specifically prohibits introducing exotic grazing animals, Frates said.

The state held a dozen public meetings where committees comprised of various stakeholders, including landowners and sportsmen, voted to ultimately allow the transplant, said the DWR’s big game coordinator.

The RNA is “a very small portion (of the La Sal habitat) – I don’t know if that’s a reason to not put mountain goats there,” Shannon said.

Frates echoed Hoskisson by saying the DWR is catering to the interest of hunting guides who get paid a lot of money by people who want to hunt the animals.

“There isn’t a good scientific reason to introduce them to this sensitive region,” Frates said.

State versus feds

While the conservation groups still wait for a response from the Forest Service, Wallace told the Moab Sun News that the Division of Wildlife Resources canceled its plans to add five additional goats this fall to bring the goat count up to 40.

The decision had nothing to do with the current controversy regarding the goats, Wallace said.

The agency “decided not to go forward at this time,” after finding other, higher priority areas, he said. Twenty goats were transferred to the La Sals in 2013, and another 15 goats were introduced last year for a total of 35 goats.

Mary O’Brien, Utah Forests Program Director with Grand Canyon Trust, and other members of the conservation groups want to see the existing goats removed. The DWR doesn’t need to add more goats – the nannies are having babies and the goats are increasing on their own, O’Brien said.

“The Forest Service needs to make a decision to follow their own regulations,” she said. “They’ve got a rare and irreplaceable native habitat that will be inevitably degraded – contrary to their own regulations.”

“Typically, wildlife management is the responsibility of the state,” Wallace said.

Jones and O’Brien counter that the Forest Service is in charge of habitat – and that exotic animals are trampling that habitat.

Intermountain Region spokesman E. Wade Muehlhof said the Forest Service wants to “work collaboratively with our state partners on a monitoring program to evaluate impacts and determine how to best move forward to meet both agencies’ objectives and mission.”

O’Brien said impacts have already been discovered, and that the Forest Service made a promise to the nation to protect the pristine alpine area.

Conservation groups appeal to Forest Service to remove exotic goats from La Sals; DWR, hunters say species is a good fit