Nonprofits file appeal against Forest Service in goat dispute

The Grand Canyon Trust and the Utah Native Plant Society appealed the Utah District Court’s decision to dismiss their suit against the U.S. Forest Service on Aug. 9. The plaintiffs hope to require the Forest Service to remove mountain goats in the La Sal Mountains and prevent further goat introductions.

A federal judge dismissed the suit in March, concluding that the Forest Service had not made a specific decision that could be challenged in court, but rather had refrained from action, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.

If the appellate court overturns the decision to dismiss the case, a law giving federal courts jurisdiction over the “final actions” of federal agencies such as the Forest Service will come into effect and the agency may be required to remove the goats, which were introduced by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) in 2013 and 2014.

The Forest Service came out against the introduction of mountain goats in a 2013 letter to the Utah Wildlife Board, citing potential negative impacts to rare and sensitive plants in the Mount Peale Research Natural Area.

There are now 70 goats in the La Sal Mountains according to DWR regional supervisor Chris Wood.

Wood said that mountain goats are a slow-growing species that fill the ecological niche bighorn sheep have historically occupied. Domestic sheep on private land in the mountains are likely to carry diseases that would be dangerous to bighorn sheep herds, but goats have a “large dietary overlap” with bighorn sheep.

Wood said that the goats are popular among hunters and wildlife watchers and will not harm the alpine area of the mountains.

“We believe that this alpine community in the La Sals evolved with some form of herbivory from deer, from elk, from bighorn sheep, from other species, [and] that introducing mountain goats on the La Sals would not impact the vegetation community on the La Sals.”

“The Forest Service has monitored alpine communities in the Uintah [Mountains] for decades and they have seen zero impact on the vegetation communities from mountain goats. So, we felt very confident that we could introduce mountain goats onto the La Sals and have zero impact on the vegetation community overall,” Wood said.

Wood also said that DWR and the Forest Service have recently signed a vegetation monitoring plan.

“Together we’ve come up with a very robust vegetation monitoring plan that will detect any changes in the vegetation that could occur in the next upcoming years and see if there’s any ties to mountain goat use of that area,” Wood said.

However, the Grand Canyon Trust has seen signs of damage, according to Mary O’Brien, director of the trust’s Utah Forest Program.

“We’ve started going in this year and [there’s] just a lot of damage,” O’Brien said. “Wallows, sensitive plants being eaten. Grasses being uprooted and pulled out while the soil is soft and the roots are now in the air … This is really, really problematic because the alpine area has a short growing season, between when snow melts and snow comes again … Alpine areas are already in trouble because of global warming. It’s happening, you can photograph it, you can see it and it’s not supposed to be happening by [the Forest Service’s] own regulations.”

O’Brien added that past studies by the Wild Utah Project, plant surveys in the Uintahs and studies in Olympic National Park have shown vegetation being damaged by mountain goat populations.

The Grand Canyon Trust and Utah Native Plant Society petitioned the Forest Service to remove the mountain goats in 2015, which the Forest Service has not done. The two nonprofits are contending that the Forest Service’s denial of their request to remove the goats counts as a final federal decision and therefore can be litigated in court.

“The chief [of the Forest Service] denied our permit saying … they’re going to monitor, which is beside the point because the rules are [goats] are not supposed to be in the Mount Peale Research Natural Area,” O’Brien said. “So, we have taken both the regional office denying our request that they remove the goats and the chief’s denial as decisions and that’s what we’re litigating on. The court process is very, very slow and the damage is ongoing.”

The Forest Service was not able to comment on the ongoing litigation, according to Rosann Fillmore, Public Affairs Officer for the Manti-La Sal National Forest.

The case will be heard in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Forest Service will file a response brief by Oct. 10, said Neil Levine, the lead attorney on the case for Grand Canyon Trust. It is likely, he said, that a judge would begin to hear arguments in the spring of 2018. After that, it could take more than six months for a decision to be issued, Levine said.

ByBy Rose Egelhoff

The Times-Independent