In a Rut
Sometimes the birds just don’t want to cooperate. Sure, I could hear many but I couldn’t see a damn thing. Down the slope of Hurricane Ridge I was squinting across, only six trees were likely candidates for a Olive-sided Flycatcher I could hear pipping away, but no tapered silhouette materialized. American Pipits spirited about overhead and in open alpine meadows directly in front of us, apparently invisible. Don’t get me wrong here, I love wildflowers, but I was begging to lose steam talking about them. Something alive and lacking roots was in order for variety’s sake.
Those snow patches were in an oddly exposed southern face….No, not snow, Mountain Goats!
There’s a million and one stories about introduced species, intentional or otherwise, the vast majority are not positive. How Mountain Goats got to the Olympic Peninsula isn’t a mystery, a few sportsmen got it in their heads in 1920s that they could do with some more things to hunt in the Olympics. Apparently Black-tailed Deer and the largest subspecies of Elk in North America, the Roosevelt Elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti), weren’t enough.
In a place that designated a National Park, a Biosphere Reserve, and a World Heritage Site partially because of marked floral endemism, (and notable endemic fauna) you might guess why a significant introduced goat population is be a problem. (Ok, ok, they are actually goat-antelopes but who’s counting?) The point is they trample, munch, and wallow in all those gaudy, endemic, fragile plants I was half complaining about earlier, (I also incessantly have to remind my fellow mammals to not trample them so I can’t really blame the goats too much).
The goats have been a point of contention for a long time. The park service initially tried to remove the over 1000 strong population by live capture during the 1980s. This was dangerous, eventually deemed impractical at best, taking care of 521 animals. Between some hunting outside the park and the removals, the population dropped back to a somewhat reasonable number. In 1997 there was a push to shoot the remainder but public opinion apparently shut that idea down.
So then this guy hiking in the Olympics in 2010 got gored by a male Mountain Goat in rut. He died. People got upset (understandably) and there’s a lawsuit pending. Knowing full well that mountain goats are aggressive and potentially dangerous, it’s still easy to want to get closer and we hiked on intent on better views.
We’d been watched the group of seven goats, three of them adorable yearlings, when the largest and closest animal, dashed inexplicably closer to where we stood on the trail. While rushing away in terror I also noticed he was shedding his winter wool coat quite rapidly, tufts wafting off as he sprinted. I thought of the warm blankets the people of the Olympic Peninsula would have traded for with tribes from near the goats’ native range in the Cascades. Then I noticed the man running in our direction and realized why the goats were running.
I’ve never had a ranger at park tell me to throw rocks at a wild animal until this year. Much less have I ever seen a ranger running full-tilt down a trail shooting a paintball gun at Mountain Goats. They’d gotten much too close to the trail, following about all the wonderful annual foliage in the subalpine swale just below us. Deterring animals from living in areas where high numbers of people visit is the temporary solution.
I don’t envy the National Park service, trying to appease animals rights interests by not killing the goats but being asked to do so by concerned hikers (and likely a few botanists). Sure these animals shouldn’t be there, but they are always enjoyable to see. And quite honestly I didn’t mind seeing rangers shoot hot pink paintballs at seven caterwauling goats. It was possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen all summer (however let’s pray next summer consists of something better).