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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

February 16, 2012 at 9:00 AM

Mountain goat count up in Olympic National Park

A new report by the U.S. Geological Survey shows the population of mountain goats in the Olympics — where they are not a native species — is growing.

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The report just issued by the USGS shows goat populations are up to 344 animals in the Olympic Mountains, a 40 percent increase since the last count in 2004.

The helicopter survey was done in mid- to late July, in flights over the Olympic Mountains. Some peaks, such as Olympus, were found to be home to dozens of goats, while others had just as scattering.

This year’s count was regarded as more accurate, and the 40 percent increase it shows from the last count in 2004 was attributed to differences in survey methods — including counting goats in a larger area of the park. It was the first increase in population noted since the 1980s, when populations peaked.

At the current rate of growth, the goat population could double within about 15 years, according to the report.

From 1981 through 1989, the park conducted live captures of the goats, because of concern about erosion of fragile alpine terrain and destruction of native plants by the animals. The goats were introduced into the Olympics in the 1920s, prior to the park’s establishment. The population quickly expanded, raising concern among park officials throughout the 1970s, leading to the live captures. The captures however involved dangerous flight maneuvers, eventually leading the park to cancel them.

From 1981-1989, many goats were re-located from within the park — 521 in all. Many were also shot outside park boundaries, a total of 111, through legal hunting. There also were three documented illegal kills in the park. Today’s populations remain a fraction of the peak of more than 1,000 animals in the Olympics in the early 1980s.

Park officials in 1997 backed down from a plan to shoot and kill goats in the park after U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton, squashed the idea, saying public opinion was against it.

The goats made big news in October 2010 after a 300 pound billy in rut fatally gored a hiker in the park less than 20 miles from Port Angeles. A lawsuit against the park over the man’s death is pending.

To learn more about the natural history of mountain goats in the Cascades, where they rein quite supreme in their mountain redoubts, read my story in the Seattle Times.

For my own tale of close encounters with goats on the trail, read my earlier blog post in Field Notes from my hike last summer.

One of the finest books on the natural history of mountain goats is Douglas Chadwick’s A Beast the Color of Winter. (Bison Books, 2002) His descriptions of the goat’s adaptations to thrive in the rugged high country are fascinating.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also has statewide population estimates for the goats and more information on their ecology.

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