More than 200 mountain goats so far have been captured and transported from in and around Olympic National Park. Wildlife managers are working to relocate the entire population to native habitat in the North Cascades.
Located near the Southeast corner of the national park, the area is home to about 30 animals that so-called "muggers" will target with nets and dart guns. They'll then fly the goats to a staging area, where they will be checked by vets and outfitted with radio collars. Then, eventually, the goats will be packed in crates, transported in refrigerator trucks to keep them calm and released to seven sites in their native habitat, in the North Cascades.
The relocation started last summer. Pictures show as many as three goats at a time, blindfolded, in slings hoisted by helicopters. It's spectacular.
"It's not something you see every day," Penny Wagner, Olympic National Park spokeswoman.
The goal is to completely remove all mountain goats from the Olympic Peninsula. The goats were introduced to the area by hunters in the 1920s. Their number now is estimated at about 725.
Wagner says the goats can move quickly across steep mountainsides and are pretty smart. It's getting harder to catch them.
"They're also in very tricky terrain. So the helicopter pilot and crew have to evaluate, given the area and the terrain if they can safely capture the animals,” Wagner said.
“And the animals, they understand that helicopter pretty quickly. So they do get to be very aware of what that helicopter means and the sound of it."
Animals that evade capture will be subject to lethal removal after the translocation operations wrap up. The current round continues around Mount Ellinore through the end of August. A third round is planned for next summer, but still awaits funding. After that is done, the plan is to hold a special hunt to remove remaining goats from the national park and the peninsula, using skilled volunteers.
The non-native habitat doesn't offer them enough salt. They find it in the sweat and urine of humans and can become aggressive. In 2010, a man was fatally gored by a mountain goat while hiking on a park trail.
Susan Garner, public affairs officer with the Olympic National Forest, says the goats there have become habituated to humans.
“They’ve gotten pretty comfortable with people hiking to the top of Mount Elliniore sort of hanging around with them," Garner said. "That’s not healthy for the goats and probably not very safe for humans.”
Goats can be attracted to sweaty backpacks and other gear. Garner says they also damage delicate native plants when they bed down and rest.
“We have a very fragile Alpine system up there that we’re trying to protect," Garner said. "And the goats like to wallow in the dirt. And so they can cause quite a bit of damage."
She adds that in 23 years with the forest service, she has never seen anything like this translocation, especially when the goats are flying through the air, hanging from helicopters.
“It looks pretty goofy, I agree,” Garner says, “But it seems to be the best process for getting the goats off the mountains and putting the least amount of impact on them.”
She says she’s been impressed with the hush that descends whenever the goats land, as wildlife handlers take care to treat them as gently as possible.
State officials say moving them to the North Cascades makes sense. They’ll find more salt in the landscape and will add to the genetic diversity of the population there — and will eventually provide more opportunities for hunters.
UPDATE, Aug. 23, 9:45 a.m.: Videographer John Gussman captured the process from start to finish. Watch wildlife managers transport and screen the mountain goats in the video below.