Arguably, someone should have shot Klahhane Billy years ago. They shot him anyway, but it was a little late. Robert Boardman already lay dead; he had bled to death on a dusty trail along Klahhane Ridge.
"Klahhane Billy" was the 370-pound male mountain goat that gored Boardman in the thigh only a few miles from Olympic National Park's Hurricane Ridge visitors' center in the summer of 2009. Boardman, his wife and a friend had walked up the Switchback Trail, which meets the Hurricane Ridge road a few miles below the visitors' center and climbs to KlaHhane Ridge. When they stopped for lunch along the ridge, the mountain goat started hassling them They started back. Boardman ran interference with the goat, which followed him as he retreated down the trail.
When the goat persisted, the others went on ahead, while Boardman hung back, delaying the animal. Boardman's wife and friend heard him scream. They climbed back and found him prone on the trail with the goat standing over him. Not until an off-duty national park employee radioed for advice and scared the goat away by flapping a space blanket could they reach him, a half-hour after the fact. A Coast Guard helicopter subsequently airlifted him off the ridge. An EMT lowered from the helicopter hadn't been able to revive him, and when Boardman arrived at Olympic Medical Center in Port Angeles, he was pronounced dead. A couple of rangers found the goat, saw blood on its horn, and shot it.
Boardman was hardly the first hiker to have a run-in with Klahhane Billy. People had been complaining about the goat for years.
That fact lies at the heart of the damage suit that Boardman's family filed last month against the United States government in U.S. district court. The family had filed administrative claims earlier, but the United States Attorney for Western Washington turned them down.
If people walk off into the wilds — even the wilds within a few miles of a massive parking lot and busy visitors' center — does the government have a duty to protect them from wild animals? Does it have a duty to protect them from other hazards?
All else being equal, the answer is "no." Remarkably, in this litigation-haunted time, people in the national parks remain free to kill themselves in a wide variety of ways. This year, in Yosemite National Park, some 18 people did just that. Mostly, they skirted fences, ignored warning signs, then drowned in rivers or fell off cliffs. Three were swept over a waterfall. Two fell off Half Dome. Closer to home, a climbing death or two at Mount Rainier, or Mount Hood, or both has become almost routine. People debate whether or not any yoyo with an ice ax should be allowed onto the mountains, and whether or not the public should have to pay for rescues there, but no one figures the National Park Service is responsible when someone gets buried by an avalanche, disappears into a crevasse, or falls off a cliff.
But wild animals are — or may be — a little different. Nobody owns a wild animal, unless it has been captured or killed, and nobody is responsible for what it does. As courts have decided recently in the cases of people killed by bears in Utah and Montana, a wild animal is a "condition on the land," and the governmental entity that owns the land isn't liable. Courts in California and Florida have let those states off the hook for deaths caused by cougars and alligators. And yet ... that may not be the whole story here.
Two different courts in Utah have recently issued two contrasting verdicts in cases concerning the death of an 11-year-old boy who was killed by a black bear while camping with his family in American Fork Canyon on Fathers' Day of 2007. One court ruled that the state and federal governments were not liable for the boy's death. The bear was a condition on the land. No one was responsible for its actions.
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