Written on August 13, 2003
The mountain goat population in the Boulder and White Cloud Mountains has fallen sharply, federal officials believe, prompting discussions about whether winter recreation should be restricted in areas favored by the animals.
Robin Garwood, wildlife biologist for the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, said an ongoing Idaho Fish and Game survey of mountain goats in the White Cloud Mountains has indicated that the population dropped by two-thirds in approximately the last 15 years. The state agency in 1988 estimated the population at 186 animals, compared to only 61 animals in 2002, Garwood said.
State Fish and Game numbers for both the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges—excluding the western slope of the Boulder Mountains—also indicate a sharp drop. In 1988, an estimated 278 goats roamed the area, but by 2002 the population dropped to 120 animals, Fish and Game reported.
Ed Cannady, backcountry recreation manager for the SNRA, said the U.S. Forest Service has not conducted its own count of mountain goats in the Boulder-White Clouds. However, he said the Fish and Game numbers do accurately demonstrate a trend in the regional mountain goat population. "I see far fewer goats than I used to when I'm back there (in the White Clouds)," he said. "The empirical evidence is that there is a decline."
Garwood and Cannady said the Forest Service has not determined the cause of the decline, but is considering its options to protect the mountain goats from potentially stressful encounters with humans.
Cannady said travel restrictions might be necessary to protect the animals. "We're going to have to look at the best way to ensure that the goats have the best opportunity, not just to survive, but to bring their numbers back to where they were historically," he said. "If that includes travel restrictions, then we will definitely look at those."
Any future restrictions on travel in mountain goat ranges would include "any and all travel types, including skiers," Cannady added.
Garwood said mountain goats are particularly vulnerable in winter, when they are generally confined to lower elevations where they can successfully forage for food. With food sources already waning in winter, the animals must conserve their energy to stay healthy and cannot afford to repeatedly run from their home ranges, she noted.
"Any extra disturbance can be detrimental," Garwood said. "The less disturbance, the better."
Cannady said the Forest Service has not determined that any one type of encounter between mountain goats and humans is most detrimental to the animals. "Everyone assumes that motorized uses have the greatest impact, but it's a lot more complex than that, of course," he said. "It's very situational."
Despite a reluctance to enact land-use closures, Cannady said the SNRA does have an obligation to protect its signature species. "I think we would be hard pressed to sit idly by while the population is in decline."