The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) released the seven male and 13 female transplants from central Utah’s Tushar Mountains into Beaver Basin on Tuesday night, Sept. 3 and Wednesday morning, Sept. 4.
Proposals to establish a population in the eastern portion of the Manti-La Sal National Forest have been bouncing around for decades, according to DWR Wildlife Program Manager Justin Shannon. But the final plan only took hold after 18 months of work, he said. The state Wildlife Board approved the DWR plan by a 4-2 vote during its Aug. 22 meeting, but the number of goats transplanted has been reduced from 40 to 20.
Shannon said his agency honed in on the La Sals because they share the characteristics of other ranges where introduced mountain goats now roam.
The first populations in Utah were established in the 1960s, and Shannon said that monitoring projects over the years failed to identify any related negative impacts on the land.
Based on that data, Shannon said the state agency felt comfortable moving forward with the project in the La Sals.
“That’s a pretty good track record,” he said.
But Mary O’Brien, who serves as the Grand Canyon Trust’s Utah forest program manager, believes the project is a bad idea.
While the animals’ historic range extends throughout other parts of the Western U.S. and Canada, mountain goats are not native to eastern Utah.
“UDWR made a real mistake in picking the La Sal Mountains’ alpine area,” she said Sept. 4.
O’Brien said that she and others fear the sure-footed goats will tear up sensitive alpine habitat, posing a threat to endemic plant species such as the La Sal Daisy, which can only be found in the La Sal Mountains.
That habitat, she said, is unique in the sense that it hasn’t been heavily impacted by recreation, livestock grazing or other activities.
It’s also a relatively small area that is surrounded by a desert, she said, noting that the region as a whole is susceptible to the effects of an ongoing drought.
O’Brien believes the DWR’s decision to establish the new population came at the behest of hunters, as opposed to the local community.
“It’s a pretty special place to a lot of people, and the idea to put Rocky Mountain goats in the La Sals did not come from Moab,” she said.
Now that the goats are here, O’Brien wants the Forest Service to complete its own plan to manage them.
“We believe the Forest Service has a responsibility to push back on this and develop [its] own plan with public input,” she said. “Ultimately, the Forest Service has the final power to decide what amount of exotic animals are going to be allowed [on the Manti-La Sal National Forest].”
John Zapell, a public affairs officer with the Fishlake National Forest, said site-specific issues sometimes tend to get a little messy.
Although the Forest Service doesn’t agree with the DWR’s decision in this case, federal agency officials will continue to work with the state on current and future monitoring projects, he said.
The DWR has already collared each of the transplanted mountain goats in order to track their movements, and according to Shannon, it plans to keep a close eye on how they affect plant communities in the La Sals.
“Habitat monitoring is really important to DWR,” he said.
The agency ultimately believes that the animals will fill a niche that long-gone bighorn sheep once occupied, he said.
“Grazing in these areas isn’t new, but it’s important to monitor, so we will,” he said.
While some conservationists oppose the project, Shannon said he is thrilled that decades of planning have come to fruition.
“We’re very excited to expand mountain goats throughout the state and to expand hunting and viewing opportunities,” he said.