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Bad goat: when should the feds have shot the killer?

A mountain goat that the photographer believes was probably the one involved in the death of Robert Boardman. Credit: Miguel Vieira/Flickr

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.

Another court, however, ruled that the United States Forest Service owed damages for failing to post a warning sign. (The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources was found 25 percent at fault for failing to inform the Forest Service. The boy’s parents were also found 10 percent at fault for leaving a granola bar wrapper and an empty pop can in their tent in bear country.) The bear had been terrorizing people in that same campground earlier that same day. Government employees had been trying to shoot it. They just hadn’t found it yet. The Forest Service could have posted a sign. If it had, the boy’s parents claimed, they would never have camped there. The court awarded the family $1.95 million.

In the 1990s, it became clear that they were devastating some of the natural vegetation, including Olympic Mountain milkvetch and 32 other rare and/or endemic plant species. The big critters were eating the plants, trampling them, and creating wallows in their alpine habitat. The National Park Service decided to get rid of the goats. All the goats. The park service wanted to put sharpshooters on helicopters and shoot them.

The attorney for the Boardman case, John Messina of Tacoma, refers to this ruling as a possible precedent. He also points out that mountain goats basically don’t belong in Olympic National Park, and he says that should make a world of difference. The animals were introduced into the Olympics in the 1920s, before creation of the park.

In the 1990s, it became clear that they were devastating some of the natural vegetation, including Olympic Mountain milkvetch and 32 other rare and/or endemic plant species. The big critters were eating the plants, trampling them, and creating wallows in their alpine habitat. The National Park Service decided to get rid of the goats. All the goats. The park service wanted to put sharpshooters on helicopters and shoot them. Environmental groups approved. Animal rights groups objected, though, Norm Dicks got into the act, the park service backed down, and the goats are still there.

Whether or not Olympic National Park officials knew or should have known this goat was dangerous, whether or not they should have whacked him years ago, whether or not they owed Boardman a duty to whack him are all questions to be answered by the court.

That is, they’re questions to be answered if this case ever really goes to court. Best guess: If the family survives summary judgment — or seems likely to survive summary judgment — the government will settle. As of now, the U.S. Attorney’s office won’t comment on the case. It expects to file a reply in January.

But be that as it may, there seems little question that Klahhane Billy was a bad, bad goat. There’s a picture of him posted above. The caption of the photographer’s Flickr stream says the goat was photographed on the Switchback Trail.

The person who posted it explains: “This goat followed us down the [Switchback] Trail. Three months later a goat gored and killed a hiker on this same trail. I’m almost certain it was this one.”

Somebody else comments: “We saw a bunch of goats up there that week too. This one wasn’t with the rest of the group though. He was just being massive and laying in the middle of the trail. We just went down the hillside instead of trying to get by that beast. I’m pretty sure he was the one that gored the guy too.”

Messina says he has talked with retired rangers who’ve been “flabbergasted” that nobody killed this goat long ago.

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