Mary O'Brien

After the Florida high school massacre of 17 students and teachers, the 17th school shooting since Jan. 1, House Speaker Paul Ryan encouraged people to pray, and said, “I think as public policy makers, we don’t just knee-jerk before we even have all of the facts and the data.”

More facts? More data? Americans make up 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but own 41 percent of the guns. During 1966-2012, America had 270 mass shooters; no other country has had more than 18.

At a local scale, but without the dreadful consequences for people’s lives, the same process of calling for more data when no more are needed is going on in our La Sal Mountains.

When, in 2013, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources proposed to establish exotic mountain goats in the rare alpine area of the La Sal Mountains, many of us said the goats would degrade the alpine community, including the Mount Peale Research Natural Area (RNA). The goats are doing so. It was inevitable.

In 1981, when the UDWR earlier proposed planting mountain goats in the La Sal Mountains, a Forest Service feasibility study nixed the idea:

“When considering that the La Sal Mountains will only provide marginal topographic features and available forage, as well as the potential ecosystem damage that could accompany a mountain goat introduction, it is recommended that mountain goats not be introduced to the Moab Ranger District at this time or in the foreseeable future.”

In 2013, when the UDWR again proposed to establish mountain goats in the La Sal Mountains, the Forest Service objected but ultimately did not prohibit the transplants. Within days, the state agency helicoptered goats to the La Sal Mountains.

In September 2014, a year after the state helicoptered 20 goats into the La Sal Mountains and a few weeks after they had brought 15 more, I and several Moab hikers led 21 Whitman College students up into the alpine area where they photographed and measured goat damage, for instance mosses sliced through by goat hooves, and Forest Service sensitive plants trampled. The damage was already visible.

In 2015, when the conservation group Wild Utah Project was organizing a citizen effort to document goat damage, Moab-Monticello Wildlife Biologist Barb Smith suggested the use of a qualitative method to assess physical disturbance by the goats. She had used the method in 2008 to assess where hiker impacts might be occurring in the alpine area. Wild Utah Project reassessed 14 of Smith’s 2008 sites that had been situated within the Mount Peale Research Natural Area (RNA) and added 30 more within the RNA – all randomly selected within areas of alpine vegetation. The study found numerous sites inside and outside the RNA to be departing from “pristine” conditions due to goat disturbance, just two years after the goats had been introduced.

Last year, in 2017, with the herd 70 strong, Grand Canyon Trust staff and volunteers revisited these 44 sites in the RNA. Carefully using the method Barb Smith had suggested in 2015, they found 59 percent of the sites had degraded since 2017, due to the inevitable goat damage. While hiking among the 44 sites, the Trust also photographed 24 goat wallows in the RNA: dust bowls the goats had created by kicking out all alpine plants. Two reports available on the web, “Kicking the Alpine Plants Out” (wallows), and “Modified by Mountain Goats” (the 44 sites), document and photograph the damage.

The Forest Service is undertaking a more quantified monitoring study that will be completed in 2019, six years after the goats were introduced, while the goat numbers will still be increasing.

The Forest Service’s characterization of the Trust’s 44-site study based on the method Smith had first used in 2008 and suggested Wild Utah Project use in 2015? “Anecdotal.” But goat wallows are not anecdotal: They are visible to everyone who walks in the research natural area. Georeferenced photos of uprooted and overturned bunchgrasses are not anecdotal.

There’s a big problem with the Forest Service, like Speaker Ryan, failing to act while waiting for “more facts and data.” They aren’t allowed to do that in research natural areas. Forest Service regulations require the agency’s managers to retain all national forest-designated research natural areas in “virgin or unmodified condition.” And the transplanted goats are modifying the Mount Peale RNA by kicking, grubbing, trampling and eating the slow-growing, scattered and rare plants.

We know non-native goats are tearing up the Mount Peale RNA and they could be taken away. The reasons Speaker Ryan and the Forest Service are refusing to act on behalf of our children and our La Sal Mountains’ alpine ecosystem have nothing to do with needing more data or facts.

Mary O’Brien lives at the foot of the La Sal Mountains in Castle Valley, and is in her 16th year of working with Grand Canyon Trust.