Helicopters in Wilderness Areas? Mountain Goat study.

As defined by the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness areas do not allow motorized equipment and provide opportunities for solitude. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (UDWR) has released a proposal to land helicopters in the Twin Peaks, Lone Peak, and Timpanogos Wilderness areas for the purpose of studying what they say is a significant decline in mountain goat populations since 1999. The proposal obviously does not comply with the rules of a wilderness area and has raised some questions about the importance, the purpose, and the methods the UDWR claims are best for capturing and studying mountain goats.

According to the UDWR, there is a need to monitor the animals in the wilderness in order to determine if there is an actual decline in populations or if the animals are moving seasonally or changing home ranges. The study process would facilitate the capture of 30 goats with the use of a net-gun, shot from a helicopter. The researchers would then land the helicopter (in designated Wilderness), tranquilize the animal, take biological samples and put radio collars on the animals to track their movements. The study would take place in the fall seasons of 2016 and 2017 from late August to November over the course of eight flight days. Are there alternatives to this method? Perhaps wildlife biology students could be hired to travel into these wilderness areas on foot like everyone else?

Mountain goats are a native species to North America, but whether or not they are native to Utah is debatable. First introduced to Utah by the DWR in the late 60’s, what was then a group of six goats has increased to over 2,000 statewide. In the Central Wasatch, the number increased to around 500 goats in 1999 and has since dropped to around 200 animals as of 2013. The UDWR claims that potential causes for the decline are unknown. Could climate change, loss of vegetation, or human encroachment be to blame? Or maybe the non-native mountain goats of the Central Wasatch are simply relocating to less populated ranges? Perhaps the sources of food for mountain goats are dwindling, causing them to leave the area.

Read the “UDWR mountain goat capture and collar via helicopter in Wilderness” proposal HERE.

Arguments and even lawsuits have been made blaming mountain goats for the decline of certain types of rare plants, and for the degradation of pristine study areas. The Forest Service was sued over the introduction of mountain goats into the La Sal Mountains, and biologists in the Mount Timpanogos wilderness area have found that Lesquerella garrettii, a rare plant, as well as Mountain Mahogany have been detrimentally affected by goats in the area.

In 2012, nearly 8,000 hunters applied for mountain goat permits. That year only 161 permits were issued, but since 1981, a total of 1,231 permits have been granted, resulting in the harvest of 1,176 goats. The average age of goats killed from hunting is 4.4 years old and since mountain goats have a slow reproductive rate and live to be 12-15 years old, could hunting be the primary reason for the decline in numbers? There are clearly many questions about the cause of the decline in mountain goat populations, but are helicopters in wilderness the way to answer them?

One response to “Helicopters in Wilderness Areas? Mountain Goat study.

  1. I believe that you should deny UDWR’s application to land helicopters in the Twin Peaks, Lone Peak and Timpanogos Wilderness areas to study mountain goats.

    First, it is debatable whether mountain goats belong in these areas at all, since they were introduced by UDWR. Second, if there has been a decline in the herd from previous peak levels, this may be natural fluctuation (or a natural corrective response to being introduced to the wrong place). Third, there are plenty of stressors in this environment which could account for the drop in numbers, for example: much greater human intrusion into the back country (both on foot and using snowmobiles and ATVs, and heli-skiing), changes in vegetation patterns due to resort and other developments, and of course hunting, which selectively culls the prime trophy animals who are most knowledgeable about food supplies and safe paths in the mountains.

    None of these factors will be adequately evaluated using the UDWR’s approach, to take samples from a few animals. I believe that, if it is decided that mountain goats do indeed have a place in the Wasatch, then UDWR should be asked to design a less intrusive holistic study that could identify and quantify the factors at play, and devise suitable mitigation.

    Allowing helicopters into the wilderness does not seem an appropriate technique, and sets an appalling precedent for future intrusions.

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