Grand Teton Park Killing “Invasive” Goats to Protect Bighorn Sheep

Note this photo is of the sheep, not goats.
Since we have gotten on the topic of bighorn sheep is a link to an AP story about shooting mountain goats in Grand Teton National Park for bighorn protection.

There are two interesting things about this.. first, that species are “invasive” if they expand their ranges since when (pre-European settlement? Do we actually know what their ranges were then? When do we think like this? What about these cutthroat trout.. are they “invasive”- perhaps not because they didn’t get their on their own power?

The second interesting thing is that non-motorized recreation is apparently also not good for bighorns in this case:

The bighorn sheep herd, by contrast, is considered fragile. They have been pushed out of some of their best habitat by backcountry skiing activity, and their existence is threatened by potential disease transmission by the mountain goats.

Does anyone know if the Park is reducing or eliminating backcountry skiing to protect bighorns?

This Denver news story says that

The Grand Teton National Park Foundation called its mountain goats “perhaps the biggest ecological threat to the area in modern history” to the park in 2014.

but the link didn’t work so I couldn’t check.

Here are some local details from the Idaho State Journal:

Because shotguns will be blasting from helicopters to kill mountain goats in Grand Teton National Park during the coming week, a temporary area closure for the public is being implemented in the central part of the park.

The closure is slated for Sunday through Jan. 12 and is bounded on the south by the South, Middle, Grand Teton, Mount Owen and Teewinot Mountain peaks; on the west by the park boundary; on the east by the western shores of Jackson, Leigh, String and Jenny lakes; and on the north by Rolling Thunder Mountain and Eagle Rest peaks.

“No public access will be allowed in the area during this time,” the park said in a news release. “Signs will be posted at main access locations.”

19 thoughts on “Grand Teton Park Killing “Invasive” Goats to Protect Bighorn Sheep”

  1. How sad. I have been witnessing the F.W.S. making mistakes just like this one for 40 years. They do one management decision and then 20 years later try to reverse it. In the end, wildlife suffers from this unethical (yes, unethical) behavior. I believe that in 90% of the cases wildlife would be better off without mans (government’s) meddling. It won’t end because we need to keep all these graduating biologists working. Right? Oh, and they seem to absolutely LOVE helicopters.

      • Thanks, Dave, for the link. I don’t think it really answered my question.. maybe you found the answer somewhere else in the document?

        “Biologists have long recognized the potential for human disturbance of crucial bighorn sheep wintering areas in the Teton Range. Recent research by Courtemanch (2014) has demonstrated that the Teton Range bighorn herd is adversely affected by winter backcountry recreation. GPS-collared animals avoided areas of suitable winter habitat that experienced backcountry recreation, and animals exposed to high levels of winter recreation exhibited increased daily movement rates compared to animals exposed to low or no winter recreation (Courtemanch 2014). For bighorns that live at high elevation where winter conditions are harsh and deep snow buries forage and adds energetic costs to movements, energy conservation is critical to survival. Consequently, increased movements in response to backcountry activity can cause bighorn sheep to burn calories that are needed simply to survive the winter, resulting in reduced survival or reproductive potential. To protect some of the most important areas for wintering bighorn sheep, Static Peak and the Prospectors/Mt Hunt complex have been closed to human entry during winter to provide secure wintering habitat. Both areas were known bighorn sheep wintering areas and once popular ski mountaineering destinations. Based on location data from radio-collared bighorn sheep (NPS unpublished data), other important bighorn sheep wintering areas within the park were identified in the early 2000s. However, closures were not implemented then because winter recreation use levels were relatively low at the time and the closures were deemed unnecessary. Since then, winter backcountry use has increased and recreationists regularly access bighorn sheep wintering areas in the south, and frequently in some areas at the north end of the range.”

        It sounds like they closed some, but not all because parts weren’t that busy, but now are. So.. it sounds like those should be closed too.

    • It was the Idaho Fish and Game Department that introduced the mountain goats in the Snake River Range south of the Teton Range between 1969 and 1971. They introduced 12 goats with the goal of establishing a huntable population. It wasn’t the National Park Service who introduced them, but NPS is the agency who must now deal with the problem of the exponential growth of the goat population and their dispersal and establishment in Grand Teton National Park. The bighorn sheep population is very small and fragile and could easily become extinct. It’s been foreseen for decades that the goat population was likely to become a problem. I agree that the sheep would have been much better off without human introduction of the non-native mountain goats. I also think all bighorn winter habitat in the Tetons should be closed to backcountry skiing or other forms of winter recreation. For us, it’s fun; for the sheep, it’s survival. They overwinter in incredibly harsh conditions on the Teton Crest and about 90% of the lambs don’t make it through the winter.

  2. Below is some information from the National Park Service, which was obtained via a very quick google search. According to NPS, it appears as if the non-native mountain goats in Grand Teton came from a population of non-native mountain goats “introduced” [not “reintroduced”] into the Snake River Range in Idaho more than 45 years ago.”

    Therefore, when Sharon wrote the following:

    There are two interesting things about this.. first, that species are “invasive” if they expand their ranges since when (pre-European settlement? Do we actually know what their ranges were then? When do we think like this? What about these cutthroat trout.. are they “invasive”- perhaps not because they didn’t get their on their own power?

    I don’t believe it really applies at all since we are talking about non-native “invasive” mountain goats that were introduced by human beings into the Snake River Range. We are not talking a “native” population of mountain goats that simply decided to move to another location, such as Grand Teton National Park.

    From the National Park Service:

    “Resident mountain goats within the park are likely dispersers from a population introduced southwest of the Teton Range in the late 1960s and early 1970s. First observed in the Teton Range in 1979, they have now established a breeding population that is growing rapidly.”

    “As noted above, the current population of mountain goats that resides in the Teton Range is likely derived from individuals that dispersed from a population introduced into the Snake River Range in Idaho more than 45 years ago. Based on consistent observations of adult female mountain goats with young of the year starting in 2008 and a growing number of mountain goat reports since then (Figure 2), it is likely that a breeding population of mountain goats established in the Teton Range in the mid to late 2000s.”

    • My point was that the greenback cutthroat were also introduced
      “There he built a series of fish ponds for guests, where it is believed he stocked the greenback far outside of its native range.” (of course, perhaps we don’t know what the fish’s natural range was), but we don’t call them “invasive.”

  3. Also, regarding Sharon’s question: “Does anyone know if the Park is reducing or eliminating backcountry skiing to protect bighorns?”

    A quick google search turned up this information from the National Park Service.


    Short answer, yes, Grand Teton has reduced or eliminated backcountry skiing and all recreational activities in critical bighorn sheep habitat since the late 1990s and early 2000s to mitigate the loss of low elevation winter ranges and address the reduction in available winter habitat for bighorn sheep. The closure appears to run from Dec 1 to April 1, but last year it was extended until April 30. Here’s a story about that, which includes a map:

  4. I guess we don’t know if the news folks got the story right, but they said:

    “they have been pushed out of some of their best habitat by backcountry skiing activity,” Thanks for finding out about the Park Service closures, Matthew!
    But if they have been going on for 20 years, then I guess the sheep were “pushed out” but mustn’t have gone back when the recreationists were removed? I’m curious about how the sheep responded to the closures.

  5. In Olympic National Park, mountain goats were not native to the Olympic Mountains and had an actual documented history of introduction by hunters for sport. After the needed environmental review, the NPS undertook a substantial program to first capture and relocate as many goats as they could to the Cascades, and then euthanized the remaining goats that evaded capture.
    The NPS also had documented data on the damage caused by the introduced mountain goats in alpine areas to plants.

  6. Regarding mountain goats, see also the Utah Native Plant Society case here involving the state introducing non-native goats to the Manti-La Sal National Forest:

    The definition of “invasive species” has two parts:
    (a) “Alien species” means, with respect to a particular ecosystem, any species, including its seeds, eggs, spores, or other biological material capable of propagating that species, that is not native to that ecosystem.
    (f) “Invasive species” means an alien species whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.

    Mountains goats in these places meet this requirement. I suppose in some way the greenback cutthroats are adversely affecting something that has never had to deal with fish before, but nobody seems to be waving a red flag about it – like for transplanted rainbow and brown trout when they compete with or prey on native trout.

    I’m surprised that the definition doesn’t include something about the capacity for the species to spread itself and outcompete native species, since a dictionary definition of “invasive” is “tending to spread prolifically and undesirably or harmfully.” I assume that is encompassed in the “harm” criterion. In the greenback situation, I don’t think the species is invasive because if it does go anywhere, it would be somewhere where it was naturally occurring (and it is unfortunately not likely to do well due to truly invasive species).

      • Thanks for the link Steve! I went on to this link on the ethics.. and found this thoughtful piece by Lowell Diller on the ethics of shooting one species to protect the other..

        “Native to eastern forests and historically restricted by the treeless Great Plains, the barred owl began moving westward and arrived in British Columbia and Washington around the beginning of the 20th century. European settlement of the plains likely facilitated their spread (FWS 2013). Barred owls in the Northwest remained largely a novelty until the 1980s and ‘90s, when their numbers began to dramatically increase (FWS 2013). ”

        It sounds like the movement of barred owls may have been part of a more or less “natural” aspect of their evolution (arrived at the beginning of the 20th century). Critters and plants move…how do folks interpret what’s part of the “natural” evolutionary process and what’s not? Are we punishing species for being successful and adaptable (m/l like ourselves?).

        Note: vis a vis the goats, I think there is a difference between the species getting there on their own vs. being planted or otherwise introduced by humans.

        • In my view, the barred owl is better able to adapt to a variety of habitat types, and may be more resilient to future changes. The barred owl may be a threat to the northern spotted owl, but it fills a similar niche. Maybe we ought to consider the future outcome of forests with barred vs. spotted owl and make decisions based on the “best future condition.”

          • “what’s part of the “natural” evolutionary process and what’s not?”

            I think that’s the correct principle, and that we humans should not allow the extinction of a species as a result of our actions (which is the point of ESA). If human settlements led to barred owls crossing the plains, we are responsible for what’s happening to spotted owls. (And it seems more than a coincidence that barred owls blossomed following accelerated human logging of spotted owl habitat.) Where the effects of human actions render habitat no longer suitable for a species and it can’t feasibly be restored, then “best future condition” would be our best option (climate change being the obvious example, and maybe this is also the greenback cutthroat situation).

            It may also be necessary to cull native species like sea lions that eat endangered salmon or cowbirds that parasitize Kirtland’s warblers, because the species at-risk were made so by our actions. At least we need to try (and in the latter case have been successful).

  7. I don’t understand why these mountain goats are considered “non-native.” Their officially recognized native range is just a few tens of miles away; it seems strange to argue that, if a few natives simply walked on their own four feet to the Tetons, they should be treated as alien interlopers who don’t belong.

    Of course these goats are descended from individuals moved by humans. But should the historical touch of humankind forever taint an entire population (or, in the case of species whose non-domesticated ancestors and close relatives are extinct, as is the case with horses and dromedary camels, should the human touch forever taint an entire *species*?)

    Interfering with these goats seems powerfully unfair to me. If it’s necessary, we should, at the very least, capture them safely, keep families intact, and provide lifelong care in a natural setting; or else move them, with individual welfare foremost in mind, to a place within their historically native range where mountain goats were extirpated but could now thrive.

    • And just to riff a little on the notion of species-tainting by virtue of human association: Does that mean the future descendants of today’s California condors—who would not exist except for captive-breeding by conservationists—are less-than-natural? That if they’re ever so fortunate as to expand their range and thrive in places where California condors didn’t historically live, should they be treated as invaders?

      By the logic of the mountain goat decision, the answers to these questions seem to be yes.

      • I agree it’s unfair to the goats to kill them and traumatize the survivors and it would be ideal if they could be relocated to a range where goats have been extirpated. It’s awful to have arrived at this point where they are to be killed for no fault of their own. But if they are left in the Tetons, and continue to multiply, the native remnant bighorn sheep population that has occupied the Tetons for hundreds of years and is hanging on by a thread will almost certainly go extinct. Unfortunately the sheep population is so small that they may well go extinct anyway, even if the goats are killed.

        I don’t think the goats are being killed only because they’re “tainted” by being considered non-native. They’re being killed because their establishment in the Tetons threatens the bighorns. They compete for forage, for range, for space. The bighorns have lost their traditional winter range to human development and they winter in incredibly harsh conditions and are nearly starving all winter, foraging on windswept ridges. The goats are capable of displacing them and of transmitting disease. So a choice is being made between trying to keep the native bighorn population in existence, or to allow the bighorns to be replaced by mountain goats, who are there only because state game managers stupidly placed some goats in the neighboring range a few decades ago. If the goats had arrived in a range bereft of bighorns, it’s possible they would have been allowed to remain and multiply despite being descended from a planted population. I guess that would depend on whether they created erosion problems or threatened visitors or otherwise acted up in ways humans don’t like.

        It’s an interesting question whether the same approach would be taken if the goats had arrived under their own steam from a nearby native population. I think, in that case, it would be much harder to make a decision as to what to do. No doubt many times over the course of history and evolution, range expansions of one species have caused the decline and extinction of other species. For humans to interfere in a “natural” range expansion would be much harder to justify. And it can be hard to separate “natural” range expansions from range expansions attributable to habitat modification and degradation caused by humans. Personally I would probably advocate for leaving them alone. But in this case, it’s obviously human interference (planting the goats), not natural range expansion, that has led to this problem, and it will be squarely the fault of humans if the Teton bighorns go extinct. Killing the goats is an attempt, however horrible, to prevent that extinction.

        Obviously, the goats are not the only threats to the bighorns. All other threats should be addressed too, particularly human disturbance (backcountry skiing) during the critical winter months. I doubt very much whether that particular threat is being adequately addressed. I know some areas have been closed, but is it enough? Are the closures being honored? Extreme measures like shooting the goats should go hand in hand with far less radical measures to limit human disturbance, like keeping backcountry skiers out of bighorn ranges. I’ve also wondered what effect the control operation itself, with all the noise from helicopters and guns, will have on the bighorns during this terribly stressful winter season.

        • Well said, Alcyon.

          I think if the NPS just said, “We’re going to protect the Grand Teton bighorns, period. It’s not about native or non-native or anything else except helping them,” I’d respect that. But their invoking the goats’ supposed non-nativity seems a weaselly solution. (With all due respect to weasels! They’re not weaselly at all.)

          I also don’t like how killing represents the easy, cheap way out here. Relocating those goats would be more expensive and time-demanding. But if we as a society, or at least a conservation community, aren’t willing to spend that extra money, what does it say about how much we really value the bighorns?

          That’s an idealized, perfect-as-the-enemy-of-the-good argument, I know. If resources are tight then you do the best you can with what you have. But still. The whole thing just leaves a real unpleasant feeling. And if nothing else, the NPS could come out and acknowledge the killing as a tragedy. Even if it’s necessary, it’s a damn shame.

          • PW.. I would think there might be a group or an individual out there with large areas of private land who might want to give a home for wild animals that would otherwise be killed. There are sanctuaries for livestock who would otherwise go to the slaughterhouse.. So it is a bit surprising to me that no one stepped up.

            I wonder if some journalist had interviewed the decisionmaker, would that person have said “yes I know this is a bad thing, but we explored all the other solutions and this was the only choice that protects the bighorns.” People will possibly say “read the EA, it’s all there” but what you might be looking for is something more personal.


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