Conservation groups ask USFS to remove goats from La Sals

Three conservation organizations are demanding that the U.S. Forest Service remove mountain goats that were introduced into the La Sal Mountains in 2013 by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR). In a June 13 petition submitted to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, the Grand Canyon Trust, the Utah Native Plant Society and Wild Utah Project say the mountain goats have traveled into the Forest Service’s Mount Peale Research Natural Area (RNA) and are damaging its federally protected ecosystem.

“It’s inevitable that the mountain goats will degrade this alpine area,” Mary O’Brien, the Grand Canyon Trust’s Utah Forest Program director told The Times-Independent. “The Forest Service has real clear policies about the few RNAs they do set aside and they’re really failing to follow through on their commitment to this habitat.”

The Grand Canyon Trust maintains that mountain goats are not native to the La Sals and should be considered an exotic species. The petition states that the goats are damaging the RNA’s landscape by wallowing, disturbing biological crust, and grazing —including goats grazing on the La Sal daisy, a plant that is known only to be found in the La Sal Mountains. The Forest Service has classified the La Sal daisy as a sensitive plant species.

The petition asserts that by taking no action in regards to the mountain goats, the Forest Service is in violation of its own RNA regulations.

Included in the petition packet is a 2014 briefing paper written by Forest Service Regional Ecologist David Tart, who wrote that the presence of mountain goats in the Mount Peale RNA violates agency directives.

“Research Natural Areas may be used only for Research and Development, study, observation, monitoring, and those educational activities that do not modify the conditions for which the Research Natural Area was established. The presence of mountain goats in the Mount Peale RNA violates Forest Plan directions, fails to comply with RNA protection standards … and jeopardizes the resource values the RNA was established to protect,” Tart wrote. “[Forest Service Manual] direction requires that the goats be removed.”

Utah DWR Regional Supervisor Chris Wood said the Forest Service was initially “on board” with the mountain goat introduction but changed its position the day before the state wildlife board was scheduled to vote on the issue.

On Aug. 21, 2013, the Forest Service came out against the introduction of the mountain goats, citing potential impacts to the Mount Peale RNA and adverse effects from goat foraging and trampling on globally rare and sensitive alpine plant species.

But Wood says the DWR has the ultimate authority to transplant mountain goats and that the Forest Service’s role in wildlife management is more consultative.

Since 2013, the DWR has transplanted 35 mountain goats onto state lands in the La Sals for the purpose of wildlife viewing and hunting. Wood said the state agency knew the animals would roam to adjacent Forest Service lands. He said that according to the state wildlife management board, the Utah DWR has the authority to introduce an additional five goats in the La Sals in the future.

“From the DWR’s perspective, wildlife management is a state action that we consult with our federal partners on,” Wood said. “And ultimately we don’t need federal approval to transplant mountain goats.”

But officials with the Grand Canyon Trust disagree, asserting that the Forest Service has ultimate authority over federal forest lands and can remove the mountain goats under the property clause of the U.S. Constitution.

When the Utah DWR first introduced mountain goats to the La Sal Mountains in 2013, many in the Moab community protested the move as the introduction of an exotic species to the alpine ecosystem.

“When we introduce an exotic critter that’s when problems occur,” said Tony Frates, the conservation co-chairman of the Utah Native Plant Society. “It’s inappropriate to think damage isn’t going to happen. It’s not just about the plants, it’s about an entire fragile ecosystem that’s up there.”

Because mountain goats prefer to be at high elevations like Mount Peale, Frates said the RNA is at “specific” risk to the impacts caused by the goats, which could damage the entire ecosystem by disturbing plant species like cushion plants, which take decades to form and which also support other plant growth.

Noting that the first mountain goat populations were introduced to Utah’s mountains in the 1960s, Wood said the DWR has not seen any negative impacts caused by the goats on other mountain ranges.

“We have mountain goats all over Utah in the high elevation areas. … We’ve monitored the Tushars and the Uintas and after years and years of research we haven’t seen any negative impacts on these plant communities because of the mountain goats,” Wood said.

He said the Utah DWR, in partnership with the Forest Service, is currently conducting a monitoring plan for vegetation in the La Sals, which involves investigating several potential stressors, including the mountain goats.

But Frates said the La Sal Mountain ecosystem does not have time to undergo a DWR and Forest Service-led vegetation study while the mountain goats are still roaming.

“They’re going to try to measure exactly what the impact the goats are going to cause,” Frates said of the monitoring plan. “Our position is, we know what’s going to happen and it’s better if the Forest Service acted now.”

O’Brien said the conservation organizations are asking the Forest Service chief to formally reply by July 15 regarding the removal of mountain goats.

“This is certainly not a new issue,” O’Brien said. “We’ve been at the Forest Service on this for almost two years. I think they owe us a clear response. Are they going to follow their rules or are they not going to?”

ByBy Molly Marcello

Staff Writer