Mountain goat relocation is a high-flying balancing act in Olympic National Park

In early July, the loud whirring of a helicopter punctured the quiet of Washington’s Olympic National Park as wildlife specialists scoured meadows, forests, ridgelines and mountaintops for flashes of white fuzz: mountain goats. The cherry-red aircraft kicked up dirt and debris as it lowered two goats, dangling in slings, toward a waiting truck, their feet bound and their vision obscured by blue blindfolds. During a brief landing, one of the specialists — commonly known as “muggers” — stepped out, with a kid no more than 6 weeks old calmly cradled in his arms.

It sounds like a dramatic scene from a wilderness reality show, but it’s not: It was just another day in an extensive effort to eliminate mountain goats from the Olympics — where they are not native, damage endemic plants and even killed a person — and hand some over to Washington state to boost populations in the North Cascades Range, where mountain goats have declined after decades of overhunting. The project illustrates the lengths to which national and state agencies are willing to go to restore a single strand in the complex web of these human-altered ecosystems.

Mountain goats are not native to Olympic National Park: Hunters from Alaska introduced about a dozen of them in the 1920s. At one point, the population ballooned to over 1,000, causing “ecological mayhem,” as they grazed on rare alpine plants and eroded the landscape, said Patti Happe, the wildlife branch chief for the park. Before the translocations began, there were about 725 goats still on the Olympic Peninsula.

To keep humans safe and restore balance in mountain goat populations, wildlife biologists decided to physically relocate the Olympic Peninsula goats, starting with 115 translocations last year. The animals were all radio-collared and ear-tagged so they can be identified and tracked in their new environs. Approximately 70% of adults and half the children survived the first year — which is within the natural range of survival.

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