Mountain goats in La Sals causing ‘serious damage’

Dust is flying in the alpine meadows of the La Sal Mountains. Centuries-old cushion plants are crushed, rare daisies are shorn to their roots, and ovals of bare dirt stand out like scars among the wildflowers. The cause is not hikers. It’s not bikers. It’s goats.

Mountain goats first flew to the La Sals in 2013, helicoptered in by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources as part of a statewide campaign to introduce them into mountainous areas for hunters and wildlife viewers. Although emblematic of high country, mountain goats’ native range extends only as far south as central Idaho, and where introduced in Utah, their destructive behaviors inflict serious damage on our state’s small, fragile alpine habitats.

In addition to eating and trampling sensitive plants, mountain goats kick up flowers, mosses, and any other vegetation to create dusty wallows for bathing and resting in. Unanchored, the exposed topsoil easily blows away, and the alpine ecosystem loses precious nutrients. In a high-elevation environment where many plants grow just millimeters annually, these bare patches scar the landscape for years – and accumulate over time.

This summer I helped systematically document the goats’ scat-strewn, barren depressions. To date, we have located and measured more than 380 goat wallows across the Mt. Peale Research Natural Area (RNA), a 2,380-acre zone of unique alpine habitat that encompasses Mt. Peale, Mt. Tukuhnikivatz, and Mt. Mellenthin.

The Mt. Peale RNA has been set aside by the U.S. Forest Service as an area with “special or unique characteristics of scientific interest and importance,” in part because intact alpine communities are rare across the Colorado Plateau. All national forests are mandated by regulation to maintain their RNAs in “virgin, unmodified condition.”

Already, the Trust has documented declines in alpine meadow health in a multi-year study of 45 plots across the Mt. Peale RNA. In my work, I’ve observed wallows shearing the roots of the region’s rarest plants, including the La Sal daisy, a tiny button of sunshine yellow found nowhere else in the world. With the La Sal mountain goat population now over 130 individuals and growing fast, these impacts are only accelerating. The evidence is clear: the Manti-La Sal National Forest is not maintaining the RNA in virgin, unmodified condition, and it’s getting worse. So what can be done?

Actually, quite a lot. The Manti-La Sal National Forest, which manages the Mt. Peale RNA, can remove the goats, just as the National Park Service is doing in Washington’s Olympic National Park, another area where mountain goats were introduced and have destroyed vegetation. Although Utah DWR first introduced the goats, a federal appeals court recently upheld the Forest Service’s right to remove them.

Additionally, a draft revision of the Manti-La Sal Forest Plan, which governs management of the Mt. Peale RNA, is coming out this fall. In this draft, which is the first since 1986, the Forest Service will propose their plan for forest management. A coalition of conservation organizations will offer a comprehensive alternative management plan, which will include removal of the La Sal’s nonnative mountain goats. By law, the USFS must publicly compare alternatives and their environment impacts.

In order to fulfill their obligation to protect the Mount Peale RNA, the Manti-La Sal National Forest must remove the goats, but for the past six years, the agency has turned a blind eye to the issue. With pressure from the State of Utah to cater to hunters, USFS has been reluctant to act. Now is the time to show support for an alternative that protects the La Sals’ beautiful, fragile, alpine area and the ancient, extraordinary plants and pollinators that call it home.

For those interested in learning more about why and how to protect the alpine area above us all, Grand Canyon Trust attorney Aaron Paul and botanist Mary O’Brien will present the story of these goats at the Moab Arts and Recreation Center at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 18.

As my concern over this issue has increased, I’ve come to appreciate the Mt. Peale alpine area on a deeper level. The tiny artichoke-shaped rockjasmine, the tenacious golden-belted bumblebees, the inquisitive, endearing pika. So much remains unknown about these uniquely adapted creatures and the shrinking habitat they share. Here on Moab’s doorstep, we all own one of the only alpine communities on the Colorado Plateau, let’s not leave it in the dust at the hooves of goats.

Meinzen is a Fellow with Grand Canyon Trust, living at the foot of the La Sal Mountains in Castle Valley.