SEATTLE (AP) — Helicopters and trucks are relocating hundreds of mountain goats from Olympic National Park in an effort officials said will protect natural resources, reduce visitor safety issues and boost native goat populations elsewhere in Washington state.
Professional crews used tranquilizer darts and net guns to capture the animals from rocky ridges and slopes within the national park, located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) west of Seattle.
The animals were blindfolded, put into specially made slings and airlifted to a staging area in the park. They were examined, collared with a tracking device, given fluids and then began a journey by truck and ferry to another area in the North Cascades.
"They’re returning to their native habitat and it’s really important for them to be translocated," said Dr. Allison Case, a veterinarian with Northwest Trek Wildlife Park. "They’re very healthy goats right now. And I think they’re going to be equally, if not healthier over there."
From there, they were flown in crates and released into alpine habitat. As of Thursday afternoon, about 40 mountain goats had been safely removed.
A plan approved by park officials in June calls for about 375 goats to be moved to a habitat in the North Cascades, where the animals are native. Park officials estimate between 275 and 325 goats that can't be caught will eventually be shot and killed.
The process is part of a five year plan to remove roughly 700 mountain goats that have long posed environmental problems for Olympic National Park and increasingly put people at risk. The fatal goring of a hiker by a goat in 2010 raised new concerns about public safety.
Introduced to the area nearly a century ago, before the park was established, goats eat and trample sensitive vegetation, disturb soil when they wallow and can be menacing to backpackers and other visitors on trails, officials said. In 2010, an aggressive goat fatally charged at a hiker on a popular trail who followed him and his companions, renewing concerns about safety.
The "effort will relieve issues with non-native mountain goats in the Olympics while bolstering depleted herds in the northern Cascades," Olympic National Park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum said in a statement.
Officials have tried for decades to control goats in the park.
They removed hundreds of the animals by helicopter in the 1980s. It proposed shooting hundreds from a helicopter in the 1990s but that idea was scrapped. They also experimented with sterilizing some animals to control the population.
Between 2004 and 2016, the goat population in the park more than doubled to 625. There are now about 725 animals.
Goats can be a nuisance along heavily used trails and around wilderness campsites because they seek out salt and minerals from human urine, backpacks and sweat on clothing, according to officials.
Penny Wagner, a park spokeswoman, said the goal is to relocate 100 by Sept. 24. The hope is that between now and next year, they'll be able to relocate several hundred more goats, she said.
"We estimate that we’re only going to be able to catch about half of them," added Patti Happe, Olympic National Park's Wildlife Branch Chief. "We’re not gonna get them all. And so we’ll catch as many as we can, we’ll move as many as we safely can, and then we’ll have to switch to lethal removal."
Rachel Bjork, a board member with Northwest Animal Rights Network, called the plan to kill hundreds of goats inhumane. She said the goats have been a part of the national park landscape for decades and likely provide benefits to the ecosystem that are being overlooked.
She also worried about moving them to forests where they eventually could be subject to hunting. The relocated goats could subject to hunting, said Rachel Blomker, a spokeswoman with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. But she said goat hunting is very limited, the season is short and requires a special permit.
Blomker said the agency's goal is to help boost the number of goats in the North Cascades to a sustainable population. "That's where they should be. That's their native habitat," Blomker said.
"So far, they all seem to be doing well," said Colton Whitworth, a Forest Service spokesman. "It should be a fairly easy transition."
The goats are driven to five selected sites in refrigerated trucks to keep them cool. Two release areas are near mountain peaks south of Darrington. The others are near Mount Index, Tower Peak in the Methow area of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, and the headwaters of the Cedar River Drainage.
Young goats and their mothers go in specialized crates so they can face each other and be released together, veterinarians told KOMO News.
The goal is to finish the process of capture and release in less than 24 hours, they added.
"When they get out, the kids don’t have any sedation, but the nannies do," said Jenny Powers,who is the Wildlife Veterinarian with the National Park Service. "So, the nannies aren’t running and the kids can keep up, and they can stay with mom. And we’re hoping that that really improves our success rate.
The first operation began on Monday and runs through September 24. The next operation won't be held until sometime next year, officials said. A date has not been finalized yet.