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Removal of Olympic National Park mountain goats could start in late summer [The Seattle Times :: BC-OTD-OLYMPICPARK-MOUNTAINGOATS:SE]

It might be time to start saying your goodbyes to Olympic National Park's mountain goats (don't get too close). Some could be removed from the park as early as this summer.

The National Park Service released its final goat-management plan Friday, and the agency's preferred plan - to remove as many goats as possible for relocation to the North Cascades and then kill the remaining animals - remains largely unchanged from a previous draft.

For decades, officials have sought to eradicate mountain goats from the park only to be thwarted by activists or politicians unconvinced that the charismatic megafauna needed to be moved or killed. Last year, animal rights activists raised concerns but public meetings were hardly boisterous affairs, and major conservation organizations, biologists and other government agencies have supported the park's efforts. Controversy has remained largely confined to shouts on social media.

Over five years, the Park Service estimates, about half of an estimated 725 goats would be transported to new homes in the North Cascades, according to the plan. Remaining goats would be killed with shotguns or high-powered rifles by park officials or skilled volunteers.

Helicopters could be used to capture goats and also in their killing. Carcasses would be left in the park (away from visitor areas and marmot habitat) or donated for eating.

Goats moved to the North Cascades would boost a population diminished by years of overhunting, biologists say. Mountain goats are native to the Cascade range. Extra goats - and genetic diversity - could be the boost needed to see those populations grow with consistency.

"It's sort of two restoration projects in one: removing (mountain goats) from the Olympics and setting it right there, and in the North Cascades, restoring herds there," said Rob Smith, Northwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. "In this case, the Park Service has done its homework."

The final plan's publication triggers a 30-day wait period before the park selects one of four options. Once approved, anyone objecting to the plan could pursue legal action. If the park's preferred plan is selected, officials could start relocating mountain goats as early as late summer, said Christina Miller, an Olympic National Park official.

Park officials argue that the non-native goats have harmed species unique to Olympic National Park (in the past, some of the park's vegetation science has been questioned). They believe the park's ecology should be restored to its original state.

"Our mission is to protect these vignettes of America," said Olympic National Park wildlife branch manager Patti Happe. "They're beautiful animals, but they're not part of our ecosystem."

Officials also became concerned about aggressive goats after a rare mountain-goat goring killed a 63-year-old hiker in 2010. Mountain goats are known to seek salt from hikers' sweat and urine. Olympic National Park does not have natural salt sources, and that likely increases interaction with people.

The fatal goring prompted further examination. In 2011, the park found about 60 percent of goats that interacted with people got too near - such as not leaving the trail. A small percentage of those goats followed people, were hard to chase away or acted aggressively.

The Cascades offer natural deposits of salt. Rich Harris, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologist leading the agency's work with mountain goats, said last year he does not expect salt-seeking behavior to be a problem there.

The project would cost the National Park Service around $200,000 to $250,000 a year, Happe said last year. Funding has been secured for this summer. WDFW, which is partnering with Olympic National Park on the project, expects costs would run to about $350,000 for two years of moving goats.

The Park Service received about 2,300 public comments about the fate of the goats and the management plan.

Miller said park officials rewrote sections in the final plan to reduce helicopter flights in designated wilderness areas. After two seasons of moving goats to the North Cascades, the first lethal action would be taken from the ground, she said.

She said park officials also addressed in more detail common questions and concerns from the public, like why fertility control couldn't be used (park officials say there is no approved chemical contraceptive for mountain goats), or why hunters could not kill the goats (the park may choose to create a volunteer marksman program, but hunting in national parks would need Congress' approval).

Mountain goats predate the park's designation. Twelve mountain goats were brought by a hunting group to the Olympics from British Columbia and Alaska in the 1920s, according to park officials and newspaper clippings. They multiplied into hundreds. In 1938, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an act to make the Mount Olympus National Monument a national park.

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