A major reason America's national parks were created was to help preserve wildlife. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the Olympic peninsula located in the northwestern most corner of the 48 contiguous United States, he designated it a national park in 1938. By doing so, he continued to protect the breeding grounds of the Olympic or Roosevelt elk , a species unique to the Pacific Northwest. But another Olympic Park animal, the mountain goat, has not been welcomed. In fact, during the past decades, officials have tried to get rid of the park's mountain goats.
A couple of decades ago, hikers at Olympic National Park's Hurricane Hill Trail were rewarded not only with a spectacular view of snow-capped mountains in the warm summer months, but also close encounters with mountain goats.
Park interpreter and spokeswoman Barbara Maynes says those hikers found the goats appealing. "They're cute and attractive. And they're truly amazing animals. [If you] go anywhere else and see them climbing up and down the cliffs, it's a wonderful sight. Here at Olympic, though, they're just not a part of the natural, native ecosystem," she says.
And mountain goats are also not a part of the official description of Olympic's attractions. Park ranger Maynes says the goats came to the area early in the last century. "They were introduced: they were a small group of about 12 goats introduced in the 1920s before Olympic National Park was established," she says. "They were brought into this area, which is an excellent goat habitat where there had never been any mountain goats before. Their population expanded pretty much through the entire reach of the park. And in the 1970s, biologists and other people began to notice they were having an impact on the ground - areas where they had wallowed in the soil, denuding all the vegetation, creating trails and things like that."
Photo comparisons made decade after decade showed dramatic declines in the variety of colors, species and numbers of wildflowers and other plant species in some Olympic park areas. So a decision was made to move several hundred goats in the 1980s. The live goats were tranquilized, wrapped in nets and moved by helicopters to stable areas for transfer to remote parts of the park .
That effort was costly and considered dangerous, so after about a year it was discontinued. A 1995 environmental impact statement said one alternative would be to simply get rid of the goats, permanently, as Barbara Maynes explains. "Lethally shooting the remaining goats from helicopters. That created a lot of controversy regionally and all across the country," she says. "Many were strongly in favor of it, saying the native ecosystem of the Olympics is so different and special. We have wildflowers that grow here that don't exist anywhere else in the world. And they said, 'Yes, these goats need to go in order to protect what the park was created for.' Others were vehemently opposed. There was no way they could see any benefit in killing the goats no matter what."
The matter is still under study. Mountain goats still inhabit Olympic National Park. But for most visitors, they are nowhere to be seen. "There aren't many where people commonly go," she says. "Although visitors still see them: people in the backcountry will look up and see them on cliffs. But usually they're far enough away that they look like little white specks."
So the fate of the "cute and cuddly" mountain goats continues unresolved as officials continue to assess the priorities of wildlife management in Olympic National Park: native wildflowers and plants versus "foreign" mountain goats.