OLYMPIC NATIONAL PARK — Olympic National Park’s mountain goats have begun a historic journey back to their native habitat in the North Cascades.
Operations to move as many of the estimated 700 mountain goats as possible began this week — an effort that includes helicopters, tranquilizer darts, nets and refrigerated trucks.
“That’s the hardest part of this whole operation — making sure the stress the animal is under during transportation is minimized,” said Jenny Powers, National Park Service wildlife veterinarian.
Monday marked the beginning of a five-year operation. Leading Edge Aviation, park staff, veterinarians and officials from other agencies are working together to capture as many goats as possible.
It’s a joint effort by the National Park Service, the state Department of Fish & Wildlife, the U.S. Forest Service and area tribes.
The current effort will continue through the end of next week. Crews will conduct operations in two two-week spurts during each of remaining years.
Darts and nets
Here’s how they do it.
The helicopter crew flies as close as possible to goats for a successful capture. They can get within 30 feet.
The gunner on the helicopter makes a decision to either shoot a tranquilizer dart or a net at the goat, a decision that is partly based on how steep the terrain is.
Then a crew member exits the helicopter and blindfolds the goat — an effort that helps reduce stress — before putting it on a sling to be flown several minutes away to a landing spot on Hurricane Ridge.
There, the goats are loaded into the back of a truck to be transported to processing, where veterinarians examine them before they are transported to the North Cascades.
So far, crews have captured 36 mountain goats, seven of which were caught Thursday.
For Patti Happe, Olympic National Park wildlife branch chief, it’s exciting to see the goats on their way back to their native habitat.
“It was a long process and it feels really great to have it happen,” she said. “I didn’t really believe it was going to happen until the helicopter landed on Monday morning.”
Each of the goats captured must undergo a veterinary examination before making the journey via refrigerated truck to the North Cascades. The chilled trucks are said to help keep the goats calm as they travel.
Dr. Allison Case, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park veterinarian, is one of several veterinarians checking the goats’ health before they are ready to go.
Most have been in perfect health, she said.
Veterinarians collect blood, DNA samples and nasal swabs, listen to lungs and hearts and do other physical examinations.
Each goat gets an ID tag in its ear and adults get radio collars.
“That’s all critical information for the biologist to follow their progress after release,” Case said. “The radio collars eventually fall away, but the ear tag identifiers are for the rest of their lives.”
The darts used in the field contain carfentanil. Vets also use haloperidol and midazolam to calm the goats.
Powers said that this is part of a new drug protocol and part of it requires officials to learn as they go.
“We’ve taken the history of what others have used, and we’re trying to use some of the new capture-type drugs to reduce the stress on the animal.”
Nannies and their kids
Goat nannies and their kids are transported together to reduce stress. They are shipped in modified crates that allow them to face each other during the transport. A mesh between them allows them to see and smell each other.
“We just want to do what we can to keep the mom and kid together and to keep them comfortable,” Case said.
Nannies and their kids are released together in the North Cascades.
Powers said there had been issues in the past in which nannies would become so excited when they are released that they run away and lose their kid.
“That’s why we’re trying these new sedation protocols, so the nannies can see each other,” Powers said.
The nannies are sedated when they are released so that their kids can keep up, she said.
Sometimes a mother is nowhere to be found when crews capture young goats.
For the orphans, Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, the Oregon Zoo and the Woodland Park Zoo have partnered to provide homes for the young goats.
Survival rates among orphans in other mountain goat translocation efforts have been low.
“We’re really fortunate at Northwest Trek to be able to provide them a home,” Case said. “We’re all partnering together to do what we can to keep everybody safe.”
The goats were introduced to the Olympic Peninsula in the 1920s before Olympic National Park existed. That population grew up to about 1,000 animals, though it is estimated there are now about 700 goats in Olympic National Park.
Happe said the goats impact the fragile alpine and sub-alpine ecosystem. She compared the Olympic Mountains to an island and said it’s the park’s priority to protect the unique species that are native to the area.
“We have a lot of species here that are only here and found nowhere else,” she said. “We’re mandated to protect those species.”
The goats have also become comfortable around humans. She said the Olympic Mountains lack the salt that goats crave and they have learned they can get that salt from humans.
“They have learned not to be afraid of people,” she said. “We have had goats that were just strongly associated with people, seeking salts to the point where they … were aggressively seeking salts.
That was causing some dangerous interactions between goats and humans, including a fatality,” she said.
Bob Boardman, a Port Angeles man, was killed by a goat that gored him as he hiked Klahhane Ridge in October 2010.
Not all of the goats will be captured.
Officials estimate about half of the 700 goats will be removed during the five-year operation.
The ones not captured will be shot and killed.
“Our goal is to get rid of all of them,” Happe said. “We know from past experiences that we cannot catch them all.
“We’re being honest with the public: we’re not going to get them all.”
As goats see crews capture others in their group, they become more elusive.
“Once the helicopter comes over … those remaining goats will know what’s up,” she said. “They’re going to get harder and harder to catch.”
She said some live in such steep terrain that it would be impossible to catch them.
The park plans to use volunteers to kill the goats that can’t be captured, though it hasn’t been decided how that will work, she said.
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].