Shaky science may doom mountain goats in their own habitat
JACKSON, Wyoming––Mountain goats, already scapegoated for much else, are now blamed and are perhaps at risk of massacre in Wyoming for allegedly transmitting ovine pneumonia––a common disease of domestic sheep––to the isolated remnant bighorn sheep of the Grand Tetons.
Along with the shaky identification of mountain goats as possible carriers of ovine pneumonia, agencies and individuals focused on rebuilding huntable populations of bighorn sheep have mislabeled mountain goats as an introduced species, a glaring historical error.
Alleged “introductions” were reintroductions
In truth, mountain goats were identified by some of the first English-speaking explorers to traverse the Grand Tetons, and were hunted in the region for 90 years. The state of Wyoming, established in 1890, sold licenses to hunt mountain goats for at least 30 years.
A well-remembered series of mountain goat reintroductions to various parts of Wyoming began in 1955, about 25 years after the last known report that a Wyoming hunter had actually bagged a mountain goat, but many were reported shot in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As in Olympic National Park, Washington, where attempted mountain goat extirpation started in September 2018, after nearly thirty years of controversy, “Grand Teton National Park officials are working on a plan that could result in removing mountain goats from the park in northwest Wyoming,” Associated Press disclosed in November 2013––but hardly anyone paid attention then.
“Teton goats must die” said hunting writer
National Park Service spokesperson Jackie Skaggs claimed in 2013, without offering actual forensic evidence, that a year-round resident herd of about a dozen mountain goats might threaten the health of the estimated 100 bighorn sheep then in Grand Teton National Park. The mountain goats, Skaggs said, were “introduced to the region in the late 1960s for hunting purposes,” according to Associated Press.
“While the goats are popular with wildlife watchers,” Associated Press added, “they are considered an exotic species, having just established a breeding population in the Teton Range in 2008.”
“Re-established” might have been accurate, 176 years after mountain goats were first documented in the area.
Jackson Hole freelance hunting writer Cory Hatch took up the torch against the Grand Teton mountain goats in August 2016 in a column bluntly titled “Teton goats must die to protect bighorns.”
Failed to check historical archives
Asserted Hatch, “Idaho Fish and Game introduced mountain goats to the Snake River Range in the 1960s and 1970s to create hunting opportunities. A primitive species of mountain goat roamed Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem before the last ice age,” Hatch conceded, “but there’s no evidence of a native population of modern goats.”
Like Skaggs, Hatch disregarded a wealth of evidence discoverable just by searching www.NewspaperArchive.
“Similar goat transplants occurred throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” Hatch continued. “Since then the ecosystem’s mountain goat population has grown to more than 2,000 animals and has established itself in both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.”
Missed first report of mountain goats by 135 years
But the introductions Hatch mentioned came relatively late in the several decades of mountain goat restoration to Wyoming, begun when old timers could remember when the state still sold permits authorizing the holders to shoot one mountain goat and one bighorn sheep each.
Jackson Hole News & Guide environment writer Mike Koshmrl added some facts to the discussion in April 2017. Yet Koshmrl repeated the clinker that “The first observation in Grand Teton National Park dates to 1977,” erring by 135 years, unless one splits hairs and counts only observations made after the park was designated in 1929, excluding all previous sightings (and trophy hunting activity) in the habitat.
“Counting sheep from a helicopter for the last three years,” Koshmrl reported, “Wyoming Game & Fish Department biologist Alyson Courtemanch has tallied just 57, 46 and 48 bighorns in the Tetons, a considerable drop from counts of 96 in 2008 and 81 in 2010. Meanwhile, mountain goats proved nearly as abundant as sheep, numbering 43 during the aerial assessment of the Tetons.”
Habitat separates sheep from goats
But mountain goats and bighorn sheep are not normally competitors for habitat, having evolved to favor different habitat, at different elevations.
Mountain goats, for instance, have excellent protective coloration for dwelling at the highest habitable elevations, against backdrops of snow and ice. Bighorn sheep are varied shades of brown and tan, and light grey that conceal them well among rocky canyons––if there is little or no snow.
A more subtle difference is that while both mountain goats and bighorn sheep are excellent at climbing, leaping, and picking their way along narrow ledges, mountain goats are built for balance. Bighorn rams are top-heavy, sacrificing balance for showy horns, of most utility where hard falls will not normally be fatal.
Conceded Koshmrl, “Mountain goats, generally, live in different territory.”
“Transmission has not been documented”
On one occasion, however, Courtemanch told Koshmrl, “We did see a goat way up in Webb Canyon in northern Grand Teton in very close proximity to a bighorn herd.”
Picked up Koshmerl, “The closeness is worrisome for managers because Teton Range goats have tested positive for strains of bacterial pathogens [ovine pneumonia] that can be deadly in bighorn, triggering potentially catastrophic pneumonia outbreaks.”
Koshmerl acknowledged, though, that “Transmission between the two species has not been documented.”
“Rid the Tetons of goats”
Grand Teton National Park wildlife biologist Sarah Dewey confirmed to Koshmrl that she had been working since 2012 “on a management plan for mountain goats” that “will weigh a range of techniques to rid the Tetons of its goats.”
Elaborated Koshmrl, “Wyoming Game & Fish, in concert [with the National Park Service], is seeking to reduce goat numbers where the agency has jurisdiction over the species in the adjacent Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Lawmakers have attempted but failed to do away with a once-in-a-lifetime rule on mountain goat hunting and allow managers to authorize over-the-counter licenses for goats west of the Tetons.
“In the near term,” Koshmrl noted, “hunting pressure on the goat herd is actually decreasing. A plan to reduce hunting tags from 12 to eight” was approved by the Game & Fish Commission, “aimed at easing pressure on the larger population in the Snake River Range, which is valued by hunters and managers and which struggled reproductively in 2016 in the core part of its range.”
National Geographic bangs the drums
National Geographic began banging the drums against “meandering, invasive, disease-carrying mountain goats” on October 8, 2018, apparently also without checking the historical record.
“The threat list” to bighorn sheep “begins as a familiar mixture of habitat loss, overhunting at the turn of the 20th century, and broken migration routes,” National Geographic began, citing as primary source Steve Kilpatrick, identified as “a retired biologist now leading the Wyoming Wild Sheep Foundation.”
“Bighorn sheep once thrived across western North America until western expansion brought commercial hunting, land-use changes, and disease,” National Geographic continued. “What was once a species that numbered at least 1.5 million now has about 85,000 scattered in isolated populations from the middle of Canada to Mexico’s Baja California.”
Bighorn population rising since 1925
Omitted from the National Geographic account is that the U.S. bighorn sheep population in the Lower 48 states has grown more-or-less continuously since attempted bighorn reintroductions began circa 1925, according to annual surveys done by U.S. Forest Service. The first bighorn reintroductions stimulated a 15.6% population increase by 1930, to more than 14,000.
The mountain goat population, initially depleted to fewer than 10,000, rose to more than 20,000 during the same years.
Meanwhile the Wyoming domestic sheep population had exploded from 900 in 1870 to five million by 1900, remaining over three million for most of the next 50 years.
The Idaho domestic sheep population rose from 14,000 in 1870 to 2.65 million by 1918––and Idaho still had more domestic sheep than people until 1970.
The Montana domestic sheep population topped out at 2.7 million in 1934.
Trophy hunters hit both bighorn sheep and mountain goats hard during the same time frame, but outbreaks of ovine pneumonia appear to have hit both species much harder, even though hardly anyone then was keeping track.
Mountain goats recovering faster
Mountain goat numbers have continued to rebound in recent decades, while bighorn sheep have struggled in many habitats, possibly because the wildlife managers who translocated mountain goats in the mid-20th century took breeding stock from herds that had already survived ovine pneumonia outbreaks.
Whether this is what happened, though, appears to be unknown and perhaps unknowable, since no one at the time was looking for evidence of ovine pneumonia transmission and/or resistance as a precondition of moving either mountain goats or bighorn sheep.
Teton bighorns live higher than most
The Teton Range bighorn sheep “stopped migrating to stay away from human encroachment by isolating itself high in the craggy, snowcapped mountains that rim the southwestern edge of Yellowstone National Park,” National Geographic recounted, now living “year-round between 8,500 and 11,000 feet, where winter temperatures can reach as low as 40 degrees below zero and winds gusts blast as high as 100 miles per hour. For food, they scrape orange and brown lichen off of rocks and nip the dried tops of long-dead wildflowers and grasses.
“Their isolation has an advantage,” National Geographic observed. “While outbreaks of deadly pneumonia, often transmitted from domestic sheep, wiped out tens of thousands of bighorns across the West, the Teton Range herd stayed healthy.
“But scientists like Courtemanch are raising alarms,” National Geographic continued, “saying the sheep face a new round of threats,” including “an influx of backcountry skiers seeking deeper snow and bigger runs, scaring sheep and wasting the herd’s precious winter calories,” and “pneumonia-carrying mountain goats. Some models show the Tetons could support as many as 400 of them if left unchecked, Kilpatrick says. That means not only competition for food but also a potential pathway for disease.
“As mountain goats pass through herds of domestic sheep,” National Geographic claimed, “they unknowingly collect pneumonia pathogens and march them toward bighorn sheep herds where the bacteria could be transmitted by friendly nose touches, coughing, or sneezing.”
Domestic sheep population now a fraction of peak
But mountain goats today rarely go anywhere near domestic sheep, chiefly because domestic sheep are no longer pushed up into mountain goat habitat by stockmen trying to graze domestic sheep anywhere they might survive. Indeed, Wyoming today only has about 275,000 domestic sheep, while Idaho and Montana now have fewer.
Further, while the Grand Teton bighorn sheep live at an unusual elevation for the species, the normal habits of bighorns are more likely to bring them into contact with domestic sheep than the normal habits of mountain goats.
Commented Program for Monitoring Emerging Diseases wildlife disease moderator Pablo Beldomenico, in response to the National Geographic coverage, “Bighorn sheep pneumonia has traditionally been considered a multifactorial disease, caused by multiple pathogens. The absence of established and universal explanations for pneumonia outbreaks contributes to conflict among wildlife and livestock stakeholders over land use and management practices.
“The main pathogen implicated in bighorn sheep outbreaks, Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, is an exotic disease agent for North America, introduced by domestic ovids,” Beldominco confirmed. “Experiments in which bighorn sheep were commingled with domestic sheep resulted in bighorn sheep pneumonia and high death rates. Similar commingling experiments with other ungulates,” including deer, elk, llamas, horses, cattle, goats, and mountain goats resulted at most in sporadic deaths from pneumonia. Mountain goats were found to be naturally infected in Alaska,” the source of the mountain goats who were introduced to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state in the 1920s, but not of the populations restored to Wyoming many decades later.
Wyoming mountain goats came from Montana
The experiments confirmed not only that mountain goats can carry ovine pneumonia, but also that they have developed resistance to it through exposure, which bighorn sheep mostly have not.
The experiments did not, however, establish that the mountain goats of the Grand Tetons, or anywhere else, are in fact infected and able to transmit the infection to any other species.
The mountain goats reintroduced to Wyoming in 1955, moreover, came from Montana, not far north of the Wyoming border.
The origin of the erroneous notion that mountain goats are not native to Wyoming, the Grand Tetons in particular, meanwhile appears to have been ill-informed or perhaps deliberately disingenuous statements made to media by Wyoming Game & Fish Department spokespersons during the 1955 reintroduction.
The Afton Star Valley Independent, for example, mentioned in a July 1955 article headlined “Wyoming Receives Mountain Goats” that, “While old journals make reference to mountain goats in Wyoming, game department spokesmen said they feel the references were actually to mountain sheep.”
The Wyoming Game & Fish Department spokespersons may have felt sheepish about having to rebuild the Wyoming mountain goat population with goats from Montana, after the department had allowed mountain goats to be hunted out between 20 and 30 years before, while the Montana and Idaho populations remained healthy.
Fremont & Carson knew sheep from goats
Nonetheless, the evidence from “old journals” is not on their side.
Explorer John C. Fremont (1813-1890) certainly knew sheep from goats. A variety of Fremont journal entries from his travels in 1842-1845 with the legendary scout Kit Carson (1809-1866) make clear that Fremont also knew “mountain sheep,” as he called bighorns, from goats.
For instance, wrote Fremont on August 16, 1842, during his journey with Carson through the Wind River range, just east of the Grand Tetons:
“We left our encampment with the daylight. We saw on our way large flocks of the mountain goat looking down on us from the cliffs. At the crack of a rifle they would bound off among the rocks, and in a few minutes make their appearance on some lofty peak, some hundred or a thousand feet above.”
The mention of mountain goats came three days after Fremont, Charles Preuss and Augusté “Johnny” Janisse, the black man who carried an expensive, irreplaceable, fragile and heavy barometer for the party, ascended the mountain known ever since as Fremont Peak, at the edge of what is now the Bridger/Teton National Forest.
Preuss, a German cartographer and surveyor, may have observed chamois, the mountain goat of the Alps, before emigrating to the U.S. at age 31.
By the late 19th century several prominent zoologists and trophy hunters, most influentially William Temple Hornday (1854-1937), advanced the argument that white mountain goats were either a myth, a hoax, misidentifications of light-colored bighorn sheep, or at least not native to the U.S. south of mountain ranges extending directly into Canada.
But as M. LaNette Irby and Alex Chappell pointed out in Literature Review of the Historic Distribution of the Rocky Mountain Goat (Oreamnos americanus) in Colorado (1993), a study funded by the Rocky Mountain Goat Foundation, the sole evidence for their skepticism was their personal failure to find and kill mountain goats in places where others reportedly already had––along the way thinning and perhaps extirpating local remnants of the already gunshy species, so that others coming later would see fewer or none.
Other zoologists and trophy hunters of comparable stature meanwhile observed and wrote about mountain goats, carefully distinguishing them from bighorn sheep.
Wrote Warburton T. Pike (1851-1915) in his 1872 Encyclopaedia of Sport, “In Colorado, Wyoming, and Nevada, authentic instances of their occurrence have been noticed within the last twenty years.”
Wyoming began selling hunting licenses in 1899, nine years after winning statehood.
According to the Aspen Daily Times of August 27, 1899, “The first one given out under the new game laws of the state was recently made to a party consisting of W.B. Emmons of Boston, A.H. Morse of Kansas City, and D.C. Bacon,” apparently their guide, “of Laramie, for $40. The permit grants the privilege to kill two elk, two [mule] deer, three antelope [pronghorn], one mountain sheep [bighorn], and one mountain goat. The party have chosen the Big Horn and Yellowstone country in which to exercise their murderous inclinations,” the news item concluded, “under protection of the laws of Wyoming.”
This rather disapproving item establishes both that bighorn sheep and mountain goats were clearly distinguished from each other, and––unless Wyoming was selling hunting permits under false pretenses––that both were to be found in the region between what is now the Bighorn National Forest and Yellowstone National Park.
1916 hunter saw mountain goats
Accounts of mountain goat hunting in Wyoming, often including mention of hunting bighorn sheep as well, appeared in articles discoverable through www.NewspaperArchive, for decades, but eventually petered out amid mentions that both species had already been hunted to the verge of extinction.
The December 26, 1916 edition of the Corsicana Daily Sun mentioned, however, that trophy hunter J.D. Blanding, who also knew sheep from goats, had seen mountain goats several times near Lander, Wyoming. This was about 50 miles southeast of where Fremont saw them.
Blanding reported that the mountain goats he saw, but did not manage to shoot, displayed much the same behavior that Fremont had seen.
Did Wyoming mountain goat beat Jack Dempsey?
The last mountain goat shot in Wyoming before the 1955 reintroduction may have been a mounted specimen sent to then-University of Arkansas at Fayetteville curator S.C. Dellinger in 1930. The transaction was documented by the Fayetteville Daily Democrat, but did not mention who killed the mountain goat, or where exactly within Wyoming. Also unknown is whether the specimen still exists.
Despite the increasingly evident paucity of mountain goats in Wyoming, boxing champion Jack Dempsey and other celebrities hunted mountain goat in the Green River area, southeast of the Grand Tetons and Lander, circa Halloween 1931. Whether any of them actually killed a mountain goat is apparently not recorded.
Separating the sheep from the goats
What is recorded, though, is that both mountain goats and bighorn sheep continued to be hunted in parts of neighboring Idaho throughout the 20th century.
Annual National Forest Service surveys documented throughout the 1920s that Idaho had the largest mountain goat population in the Lower 48 states, while Wyoming had the most bighorn sheep.
The species may have self-segregated during the first half of the 20th century. The Idaho mountain goats retreated into the Sawtooth mountains, about 100 miles west of the Grand Tetons, while the Wyoming bighorn sheep climbed higher into the Grand Tetons, into temporarily vacated mountain goat habitat.
Millions of domestic sheep in the range between them separated the sheep from the goats.
But the mountain goats Blanding saw were well over 200 miles east of the Sawtooths, and twice that far south of any populations known to be in Montana at the time.