On a moonlit night a few summers ago, high in the backcountry of Washington State's Olympic National Park, I awoke to find a Rocky Mountain goat nanny (Oreamnos americanus) snuffling at my sleeping bag. Bearded, horned, woolly and humpchested, she was staring at mc with liquid black eyes, indomitably calm, wanting something.
Eventually I recognized that a holdup was in progress and turned over my supply of cooking salt, a commodity goats go crazy over. While smart city dwellers carry a few dollars of mugger money, smart sojourners in the Olympic Mountains carry salt, hoping to avoid getting their packs eaten or their sweaty boots masticated. Besides, they know that a salt tribute, when laid at a beast's hooves, affords a sustained close-up view of the animal.
Though it is enormously popular with Olympic backcountry travelers, Oreamnos americanus is not a favorite of park officials. Goats are interlopers, the officials say, introduced to the area by humans in the 1920s. A dozen or so animals imported from Alaska and Canada had grown to a population of around 1,200. The officials explain that the animals threaten the precarious ecological balance in the park's high country, where the goats dig dusty wallows, erode fragile mountainsides, and chew and trample rare plants. They may be "white, warm and fuzzy," as park biologist Bruce Moorhead describes the goats, but their destructive habits have led Olympic officials to try to banish them from the park's interior.
The battle was joined in the early 1970s, when park rangers began trapping and removing goats after first luring them with salt. By the '80s only the less-gullible goats remained, so capture crews took to the air in helicopters to shoot them with tranquilizing darts or drop nets over them as they fled. Some goats were captured and removed from the park; others were sterilized and returned to the high country. In 1989, however, 12 goats died during helicopter missions—the drugged animals tumbled groggily from vertical cliffs or else succumbed to shock and fear—and the program was stopped.
"We'd pushed nonlethal control methods to the limit," says Moorhead, "so we began taking a serious look at lethal intervention with the remaining goat population." Which means, less euphemistically, that park officials are considering killing the goats—a possibility park superintendent Maureen Finnerty is entertaining and one that has aroused considerable controversy.
In the mid-1970s, Grand Canyon park proposed a plan to shoot its feral burros. The campaign was received unenthusiastically by the public, and the office of resources management was flooded with angry letters, including some written by youngsters who had read Brighty of the Grand Canyon, a children's book about the burros. In the past few months Alaska, in the wake of a public outcry, has backed away from a plan to shoot gray wolves that had been preying on caribou and moose herds. And Yellowstone park has endured an acrimonious debate over the legal slaughter of buffalo within a few yards of its border.
The specter of a goat shoot in Olympic park has raised the ire of the Fund for Animals, a national wildlife-protection organization. Fund representatives Cathy Sue and Roger Anunsen have compiled historical and archaeological evidence that suggests the mountain goats are, in fact, native and therefore entitled to park protection. They have also challenged Olympic park's assertion that the goats pose a threat to rare mountain plants, claiming that park botanists have not substantiated this with scientific data. "The park," says Cathy Sue, "has a dog and pony show to suggest there are mountain goat problems. But it amounts to smoke and light."
Officials insist that a much-anticipated and long-delayed environmental-impact statement on the park will put to rest any doubts about the origins and deleterious effect of the Olympic mountain goats.
In the meantime, the goats have withdrawn deep into the mountains. Still, I carry salt into the park on the off chance I'll see one; all I ask is that any goat who plans to mug me doesn't accost me at night and will please refrain from drooling on my sleeping bag. The nanny who stole my cooking salt did both; she didn't seem to understand humans. "We're more complicated than we look," I plan to say to her next time we meet—that is, if she gives me the chance to say it.
Traps and helicopters have failed to rid the park's high country of goats.
David Guterson has written a number of environmental stories for Sports Illustrated.