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A New Study Concludes Transplanted Goats Are Damaging Alpine Tundra In La Sal National Forest

National Parks Service

Even back in 2013 it was controversial, when Utah’s Division of Wildlife Resources helicoptered 35 mountain goats, from the Tusher Mountains to the LaSal Mountains above Moab.

“But we’re four years out now, and the goats are increasing in number, and they’re damaging the Research Natural Area.”

That’s Mary Obrien, a Moab-based Forestry scientist for the Grand Canyon Trust.  “Research Natural Area” refers to 29 areas in Utah, including the one in the LaSals, that the Forest Service has deemed unique enough that they should be left in “virgin or unmodified condition.”  

Now the Grand Canyon Trust has released a new study based on several years of monitoring, overseen by Obrien.

“What this study is showing is physical damage to the alpine ecosystem, to the soils, to the plants, and ultimately that will mean to the wildlife," Obrien said. "The degradation is clear. It would have been inevitable. The alpine area has small ‘cushion’ plants, tough little lichens, mosses, mostly a scattered vegetation. And you put goats up there that are exotic. They’re big. They’re there year around, whether it’s extreme drought, like it has been here for three months, or not.  And the state plans on growing that herd to 200. It’s inevitable that this alpine area, all across the top of the LaSal Mountains, will be damaged and degraded.”

Mike Diem is the chief ranger for the Moab District of the Forest Service. Diem says he hasn’t had a chance to look at the new study, but he takes issue with how it was done.

“We do have an obligation to look at any additional information that people provide us," he said. "We need to also look at the methodologies. It’s not a really intense monitoring protocol, it’s more of a qualitative assessment to determine recreation impacts on alpine vegetation.”

Diem says the Forest Service has conducted its own extensive monitoring.

“We have installed over 80 permanent sites that we’re monitoring on a yearly basis," he said. "That’s much more quantitative. Last summer we gathered a lot more information, we’ve been doing it on an annual basis. We’re just finished compiling that information. In addition we have also gathered over 3,000 pieces of video that we had on cameras, located to help evaluate the use on site.”

But Diem says it’s “too early” to characterize the information his staff has gathered. He does agree that the Forest Service has a lawful duty to keep the Mt. Peale Research Area in pristine condition.

“I think that’s why we are doing the really intensive monitoring in that area, to ensure that we meet that intent," he said. "Some will argue, as Grand Canyon Trust has said is that because the goats are present there that that’s a change right there, and that goes against our policy.”

Utah wildlife officials, who get the majority of their funding from hunters, have maintained that they have the final word on wildlife issues, even on federal lands. And Diem isn’t willing to press the issue.

“The key thing is, once we have completed that, is that we will be working in partnership, and we have been over the last several years, with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, but we feel an obligation that we need to work with them because they are the primary agency responsible for managing wildlife,” he said.

Mary Obrien counters that the impacts have been so obvious, there is no need for more study, and The Grand Canyon Trust, along with the Utah Native Plant Society, are pressing their case against the Forest Service in the 10th District US Court of Appeals.

“Some of these small cushion plants that could be half a foot wide, and maybe three inches tall, could be 100 years old," Obrien said. "And in an instant, they’re kicked out, overturned to make a wallow. They’re not going to return anytime soon. And this amid higher temperatures. We know the alpine areas throughout North America, and indeed the world, are shrinking. And for those who haven’t hiked up above 11,000 feet, it’s an extraordinary experience. You’ve got this very short growing season and you’ve got yellow and blue and red flowers, and you’ve got bumblebees flying around, and other native bees, and butterflies. It’s like a fairy tale world. But it’s very limited. There’s very few alpine areas in the entire Colorado Plateau.”

Goat hunting has been lucrative for Utah, which parcels out “once in a lifetime” permits. In 2012, 8,000 hunters put in for 161 goat tags, which cost more than $1,500 for an out-of-stater, and reportedly have fetched up to $30,000 at auctions. The very first goat hunting in the LaSals will commence in September. Two tags will be issued for the LaSal transplants.

Originally from Wyoming, Jon Kovash has practiced journalism throughout the intermountain west. He was editor of the student paper at Denver’s Metropolitan College and an early editor at the Aspen Daily News. He served as KOTO/Telluride’s news director for fifteen years, during which time he developed and produced Thin Air, an award-winning regional radio news magazine that ran on 20 community stations in the Four Corners states. In Utah his reports have been featured on KUER/SLC and KZMU/Moab. Kovash is a senior correspondent for Mountain Gazette and plays alto sax in “Moab’s largest garage band."