Putsch against “invasive” species ignores leading edge conservation science
PORT ANGELES, Washington––Are the estimated 620 mountain goats roaming the upper reaches of 1,442-square-mile Olympic National Park a threat to biodiversity, as the National Park Service argues, or contributing to “rewilding” the park, as suggested by Arizona State University biodiversity researcher Erick Lundgren?
Should they be hunted, relocated, exterminated as pests, or just be left alone?
Public comment on the latest of many National Park Service attempts to rid Olympic National Park of mountain goats opened on July 24, 2017, and will be open until September 26, 2017, with a decision on the goats’ fate due in early 2018.
(Submit comments to https://parkplanning.nps.gov/commentForm.cfm?documentID=77644.)
Mountain goats introduced to be hunted
Introduced from Alaska in 1924, as an intended attraction to hunters, about a dozen mountain goats arrived, thrived, and left offspring more than a decade before Olympic National Park was designated in 1938.
The “ecological nativism” advanced by then-British Union of Fascists agriculture critic Jorian Jenks (1899-1963) was then rapidly rising to dominate wildlife management philosophy, including within the U.S. National Park Service.
Actively courting pre-World War II associations with Nazism and anti-Semitism, Jenks after the war only thinly disguised his views as editor of the influential journal Mother Earth, and is remembered by Wikipedia as “one of the most dominant figures in the development of the organic movement.”
The National Park Service, pursuing an “ecological nativist” management regimen, has sought to extirpate the Olympic National Park mountain goat population for more than 40 years now, and has sought to build public support for extirpation, with limited success.
Visitors tend to like the goats
For starters, visitors tend to like the goats, who as a species are shaggy relicts of the Ice Ages, and like to see them.
Also, the goats seldom descend below 4,000 feet of elevation, so are rarely met along highways, in campgrounds, or anywhere else they might make a nuisance of themselves.
The mountain goats, for the most part, regard humans with approximately the same wary caution as the resident deer and elk, keeping a safe distance.
One fatality in 90 years since the goats arrived
There has been just one exception in the 80-year history of Olympic National Park: in October 2010, one 370-pound rogue male goat reportedly menaced visitors along a trail near Klahhane Ridge on several occasions. The goat then fatally gored Robert Boardman, 63, of Port Angeles, as Boardman sought to protect his wife and a friend from the goat, who may have been seeking to lick salty sweat from their bodies or clothing.
The current National Park Service mountain goat eradication scheme alleges that mountain goats are a threat to hikers, but a February 2005 review of injuries and fatalities in Olympic and Rainier National Parks reported by park rangers between 1997 and 2001 found that “among 535 cases of recreational wilderness injuries, including 19 total deaths, the most common pre-injury activities included hiking (55%), winter sports (15%), and mountaineering (12%),” with none attributable to goat behavior.
At least four visitors died in Olympic National Park during the first six months of 2017, from a variety of accidents, none of which involved mountain goats in any way.
Translocated goats rebuilt Utah herds
Alleging that nine endemic plant species of endemic plants were threatened by a mountain goat population then estimated at 1,200 to 1,300, compared to 5,000-10,000 elk and a deer population many times larger, National Park Service staff between 1981 and 1989 removed 509 goats, many by netting them from a helicopter, tranquilizing them, then hauling them to lower elevations by cargo sling.
About twenty of those goats later helped to rebuild the native mountain goat population Utah, which had been hunted out generations before.
First, recalled Ray Grass of the Salt Lake City Deseret Morning News in 2007, “Six goats, two yearling males and four adult females, were released on the north slopes of Little Cottonwood Canyon in 1967,” after capture in the Cascades, but those goats “mysteriously vanished. The transplant project was considered a failure. Then, about seven years after the release, a goat was spotted, then two and three and eventually a whole herd. But they were now on the south slopes of the canyon.”
The reintroduced herd was augmented in 1981-1982 by 20 mountain goats from Olympic National Park, delivered and released in two groups of ten. The Olympic National Park goats much more rapidly adapted, mixed, mingled with the others, and reproduced. Some of those goats and/or their descendants were moved in 1986 to the Tushar Range in central Utah and to the Uintas, in the northeastern part of the state.
Olympic population recovering––slowly
Unhappy with the slow pace of mountain goat removal from Olympic National Park, the National Park Service in 1995 proposed to shoot the estimated 200 survivors. Representing the region in Congress from 1977 to 2013, Norm Dicks repeatedly squashed that scheme and a succession of others.
As of 2004, the U.S. Geological Survey estimated on behalf of the National Park Service, Olympic National Park hosted about 300 goats.
According to U.S. Geological Survey biologist Kurt Jenkins, who has promoted goat extermination for nearly 20 years now, the mountain goat population has more than doubled since then, growing at an average rate of 8% per year. Jenkins projects 45% population growth over the next five years, assuming that the carrying capacity of the habitat will support such a rapid rate of recovery toward the estimated population of 30-odd years ago.
Counting mountain goats
“Over the summer [of 2016], wildlife biologists from the National Park Service and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife observed mountain goats from a low-flying helicopter, focusing on ice-free areas above 4,500 feet in elevation in Olympic National Park and adjacent areas of Olympic National Forest,” recounted Michael Carman of the Port Angeles News.
“The survey methods were determined from previous studies of GPS-collared mountain goats,” Carman detailed. “These methods account for sampling uncertainty and the possibility that not all mountain goats present are seen during aerial surveys.
“Therefore, the 2016 survey total of 623 mountain goats is an estimate, with the uncertainty of the estimate ranging from 561 to 741 mountain goats. Surveys estimated 230 mountain goats in 2004 and 350 in 2011, but differences in areas surveyed during survey years prevent a direct comparison of those estimates to the current estimate. Instead, researchers adjusted numbers of goats observed in each survey to comparable survey areas to come up with population trends.”
Officially favored options
While Carman has favored allowing hunters to cull mountain goats, the National Park Service is currently considering three other options, Olympic National Park chief of resources management Louise Johnson recently summarized to Amy Held of National Public Radio.
“One method is killing the animals with shotguns or high-powered rifles. Another is relocating them. The last option is a combination of the two,” Held recounted. “That is the preferred plan but would likely take years. First helicopters would capture the goats in drop nets. Next a crew would tranquilize the animals, putting them in slings under the helicopter, which would carry them to a staging area. From there, they would be placed in trucks and driven hours to their natural habitat in the North Cascade Mountains.
“Some of the goats — roughly half — Johnson estimates, would have to be killed because crews wouldn’t be able to access them in remote, rugged terrain.”
Himalayan tahrs survived “eradication”
While the National Park Service pushes mountain goat eradication by hook or by crook, the experience of the South African National Park Service (SANParks) in trying to eradicate Himalayan tahrs from Table Mountain, overlooking Cape Town, suggests that the exercise––like the attempts of 1981-1989––will be unlikely to accomplish much more than large-scale cruelty to animals, even as the target species survives because, “native” or not, it is ecologically well-adapted to the habitat.
Himalayan tahrs are a mountain goat species behaviorally similar to the mountain goats of the western U.S., but their Table Mountain habitat, at 39,500 acres, is barely a tenth the size of Olympic National Park, with an average altitude less than a quarter as high, and flanks just as rugged but much more exposed to aerial observation.
“Thirteen years after marksmen were ordered to wipe out Table Mountain’s tahrs,” reported Dave Chambers of the Johannesburg Times on July 14, 2017, “a trio of the exotic goats has been photographed gazing out over Cape Town,” by hiker and videographer Kyle Mijlof.
Klipspringers & tahrs
“Tahrs were at the center of controversy between 2000 and 2004, when animal rights activists formed the Friends of the Tahr in an effort to save them from being culled,” Chambers recalled.
Then-Table Mountain National Park manager Brett Myrdal announced in October 2004 that a six-month cull would end, after 138 tahrs were killed, “because the rangers cannot find any more,” e-mailed Cape Town Adopt-A-Pet founder Cicely Blumberg to ANIMALS 24-7.
Soon afterward, Blumberg said, “SANParks released [native] klipspringer antelope into the park. They said that the tahr had to be removed before the klipspringer could be reintroduced,” along with nine grey rhebuck, also native to Table Mountain but poached out.
Klipspringer and tahrs shared Table Mountain from 1935, when a pair of tahrs escaped on their first day at the long defunct Groot Schnur Zoo, until 1972, when mapmakers Peter Slingsby and Marybelle Donald made the last confirmed klipspringer sightings before the 2004 reintroduction.
India wanted to repatriate the tahrs
“It is with deep sorrow that I learn that the tahrs have been shot,” commented Maneka Gandhi, founder of the Indian national organization People for Animals and a member of the Indian parliament, who had tried for years to repatriate the Table Mountain tahrs to help rebuild the struggling and officially endangered populations scattered throughout the Himalayas.
“I cannot understand why, since India was willing to take them and a formal offer [to accept them] was made three years ago,” Maneka Gandhi said.
Blumberg, one of the activists who wanted to save the tahrs by relocating them to their native Himalayas, where they are endangered, said she knew a few animals had survived the cull, which killed at least 109 of the goats.
Both Blumberg and fellow Friends of the Tahrs activist Ellen Fedele “urged TimesLIVE not to reveal where on Table Mountain Mijlof took his photo,” wrote Chambers.
Said Fedele, “The so-called conservationists will be straight up there with their guns if they know where to look.”
Fallow deer on Robben Island
Blumberg, meanwhile “said it was ironic,” Chambers summarized, “that the tahrs’ re-emergence coincided with the start of a fallow deer cull on Robben Island,” where former prime minister Nelson Mandela was imprisoned from 1963 to 1989 for his anti-apartheid activities.
“Three fallow deer were introduced to the island in 1963,” Chambers wrote. “By 1977 there were 40, and the population was controlled by hunting. But it mushroomed after the island was declared a museum in 1990, and 220 animals were culled in 2009.
Claimed Robben Island Museum marketing manager Bongiwe Nzeku, “The reduction of the population of fallow deer will have a positive impact on the health of the remaining animals on the island, as well as ensuring the restoration of vegetation to a point at which it will be self-sustaining.”
But generations of Robben Island management have made similar claims about eradicating––or attempting to eradicate––one feral species after another, while the leading edge of conservation science has slowly evolved away from ecological nativism.
Introduced megafauna “may restore a richness”
“Even as native populations of large-bodied herbivores fall at alarming rates,” observed Brandon Keim for Anthropocene Magazine on August 23, 2017, “others of their kind are thriving in new locales — yet they are often regarded as unwelcome aliens, a source of environmental catastrophe. Rather than a problem, these introduced megafauna — such as wild horses and donkeys in North America, or dromedary camels and wild cattle in Australia,” or mountain goats in Olympic National Park or Himalayan tahrs in Table Mountain National Park and parts of New Zealand — may restore a richness that has largely vanished from our landscapes.
“The decline of big herbivores didn’t begin recently,” Keim specified. “It dates back thousands of years to the Pleistocene, when dozens of megafauna species went extinct. From a deep-time perspective, landscapes that seem normal to us are in fact impoverished. They might yet be replenished.”
“Shouldn’t we protect them wherever?”
Postulated Erick Lundgren in a recent paper published by Ecography, co-authored by Arian Wallach and Daniel Ramp of the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, “If we want the functional group of large herbivores to survive their current declines, shouldn’t we protect them wherever they are able to live? If we were to eradicate horses in America and then horses in Mongolia go extinct, have we contributed to our aim to stem the sixth extinction?”
Lundgren, Wallach, and Ramp pointed out that Australia “lost all native megafauna to the Pleistocene extinctions, tens of thousands of years ago,” but eight species of introduced megafauna are now filling similar ecological niches, with beneficial effects for Australian ecosystems, despite more than a century of attempts to eradicate them.
“These include animals on the Red List of Threatened Species, compiled by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), such as one of the largest populations of endangered wild horses and the world’s only population of wild dromedary camels,” wrote Lundgren, Wallach, and Ramp.
Of 76 existing megafauna species existing worldwide, Lundgren, Wallach, and Ramp found, 22 have introduced populations. Of these introduced populations, nearly half are either threatened or extinct in their native ranges, which typically now offer much different habitat than the habitat in which the species originally evolved.
Concluded Wallach, “The global decline of megafauna is being driven by habitat loss, changes in land use and overhunting. Despite this, some megafauna have found refuge in new habitats through introductions,” a trend which in the long run is beneficial to biodiversity.