Grand Teton National Park to cull non-native mountain goats to protect isolated herd of bighorn sheep

Grand Teton National Park will resume the controversial practice of killing non-native mountain goats to protect the park’s vulnerable Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep population.

For a third straight year, the goats will be hunted beginning Feb. 23 across the northern portion of the Teton Range from Cascade Canyon to Berry Creek, according the the National Park Service. That area of the park will be closed to visitors as the animals are shot and killed from helicopters.

“Bighorn sheep have occupied the Teton Mountain Range for thousands of years, but today this native population is small, isolated from other nearby populations, and at risk of local extinction,” the park said in a statement Tuesday.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are at risk of local extinction in Grand Teton National Park. Photo: NPS/Facebook

There are perhaps 125 Teton Range bighorn sheep left and they could be wiped out by the presence of the non-native mountain goats, according to officials.

“Mountain goats can carry bacterial diseases that are lethal to bighorn sheep,” the park explained. “The Teton Range bighorn sheep population has been relatively isolated and are therefore likely ‘naïve’ to these diseases.” 

Mountain goats are not native to Grand Teton National Park. Photo: NPS

Mountain goats were introduced into the Snake River Range in nearby Idaho, and over the years the population grew and moved into Wyoming’s Teton Range. There were more than 100 mountain goats in the area before officials launched a plan in 2019 to cull them.

In February, 2020, the park removed 36 mountain goats by aerial gunning. Another 43 mountain goats would taken out by volunteer hunters that fall. Then, in the fall of 2021, an additional 20 mountain goats were killed.

Mountain goats made their way to Grand Teton National Park from Idaho. Photo: NPS/C.Adams

“In consultation with partners, the NPS has determined that the continued use of qualified volunteers would be neither safe nor effective in removing the remaining 25-35 non-native mountain goats located in the remote terrain of the Teton Range,” the park added.

Last year, a team attempting to recover dead mountain goats ended up stranded overnight in technical terrain and required climbing assistance to get out.

It means hunting them from the ground in what is considered the least accessible areas of the Teton Range is too risky to finish the job.

“As such, aerial removal is a safer and more effective method,” NPS said. “Lethal removal activities will be performed by contractors with appropriate training, certifications, and skills in aviation operations and the safe use of firearm protocols.”

Bighorn sheep are vulnerable to disease from mountain goats. Photo: NPS/C.Adams

But some wonder if the goats could have been relocated, instead of killed.

Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, a non-profit group dedicated to wildlife management, called the plan an “ugly consequence” of human intervention.

“Relocation would have been the better choice at the beginning of this process as the goats are not at fault for being introduced by humans,” it said. “An ugly consequence of humans meddling in animal affairs.”

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