Can paint guns & slingshots deliver us from mountain goats?

An alternative approach to wildlife management in Olympic National Forest.
A mountain goat in the Olympics

A mountain goat in the Olympics Photo: Jordan Lewin/Flickr

The trail up Mount Ellinor, a popular peak in the southeastern part of Washington's Olympic National Forest, gains 2,500 feet of elevation in just a mile and a half. The final push is a wheezy, you're-gonna-need-your-hands-for-this scramble up boulder fields and talus slopes buttressed by sharp ridges. It is a landscape better suited to mountain goats than humans.

And on a blue July day, with dozens of hikers out to see wildflowers, goats were on everyone's mind. One anxious woman, spotting U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist Kurt Aluzas in uniform, skipped "hello." "How are the goats today?" she demanded. "Do we need a stick?" Aluzas repeated the advice he'd given every hiker: "If you need to, throw rocks at them."

After reports of aggressive mountain goats forced the Forest Service to close the trail in 2012, Aluzas spent his days hiking up and down the mountain, hazing the animals to teach them to keep their distance. In addition to pitching rocks, he shot them with a paintball gun loaded with rainbow-colored pellets. Sometimes, he let loose a "banshee yell." He climbed the trail so often that he lost 10 pounds.

This year, Mount Ellinor stayed open, with Aluzas' less-frequent hazing supplemented by warning signs and two slingshot-wielding interns. He didn't bring his paintball gun when I hiked with him, but he carried a homemade noisemaker-slash-projectile: a pineapple juice can filled with pebbles. As we approached the summit, where goats often congregate, he laced his bear-spray holster onto his belt and filled his pockets with rocks.

Mountain goats may look placid, but their horns are sharp and their behavior unpredictable. Three years ago, in the popular Hurricane Ridge area of neighboring Olympic National Park, an aggressive billy gored a hiker in the thigh, then stood over him, keeping help away. The hiker bled to death. The incident reignited a complex, long-standing debate about how the two species can share these mountains. Aluzas' work is one answer.

More than 30 goats live on the high, horseshoe-shaped ridgeline that connects Ellinor with mounts Washington and Pershing. We saw more than a dozen, many accompanied by fleecy kids. Climbing nimbly up steep outcroppings, grazing in meadows, and bedded down in shady niches and snowfields, they looked right at home.

But mountain goats aren't native to the Olympics. A hunting club introduced a small group in the 1920s. Their population grew rapidly until the 1980s, reaching more than 1,000. The goats took a toll on rare native plants and fragile alpine areas, and as a result, Olympic National Park began to capture and relocate them. Hundreds were removed, but the effort was eventually abandoned as too costly and difficult. A park proposal in the 1990s to kill goats went nowhere due to low public support: Despite the distress goats cause humans and ecosystems, they are some of the Olympics' most visible "charismatic megafauna." Few people wanted to use taxpayer funds to gun them down from helicopters; some pointed out that humans, too, are a destructive exotic species. The goat issue, unresolved, receded into the background.

Then came the hiker's death, followed a year later by a census that estimated that the goat population had increased by 40 percent in the last seven years and could double by 2027. The mountain goat question — an ongoing study in unintended consequences — was back on the table.

There's been no renewed push to remove the goats; they're protected by practicality, inertia and, even today, public opinion. And so the focus is on coexistence: learning to live together in a territory that doesn't quite belong to either species. Actual attacks are extremely rare. But after the fatal incident on Hurricane Ridge, people began to pay closer attention, and reports of hikers being stalked and feeling threatened increased.

That's where the rocks, paintballs and air horns come in. They're all tools for training animals not to engage in certain behaviors, an art known as "aversive conditioning." Aluzas wants the goats to see humans as the dominant species on the mountain, and to learn to keep their distance. He wants proximity to people to trigger cautious, rather than aggressive, behavior.

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Posted Mon, Jan 6, 8:39 a.m. Inappropriate

Reintroducing a native but locally extirpated species -- wolves -- might help. This was a serious idea many years ago that should be revisited.


Posted Mon, Jan 6, 5:14 p.m. Inappropriate

Dang. I saw your comment and hoped you were talking about downtown Seattle.

Posted Wed, Jan 8, 10:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Paintball gun? Shotgun!


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