Helicopter gunners to kill Teton park mountain goats

Winter weather has caused Grand Teton National Park to temporarily postpone its plan to use helicopter gunners to kill off its population of non-native mountain goats.

The planned mountain goat killing operation in Grand Teton National Park literally never got off the ground because of poor weather.

The park’s plans to remove a population of about 100 non-native mountain goats via helicopter gunners has been postponed until later this winter due to snowstorms and high winds circulating the Teton Range.

After the park announced its helicopter gunner initiative earlier this month, several people, some of whom lived out of state, contacted the Journal to voice their opposition to the initiative. Additionally, animal rights groups and environmental conservation organizations are both scrutinizing the plan and calling on Grand Teton National Park to reconsider its approach to controlling the population of non-native mountain goats.

“Killing one species in order to protect another is like robbing Peter to pay Paul,” PETA Senior Vice President Lisa Lange said in an email. “Humans placed these mountain goats in the area, and it is up to us to use non-lethal methods to remove them if, and only if, removal is truly necessary for them, the environment, and other animals — and NOT to satisfy the blood lust of hunters, who love to manipulate wildlife numbers so that they can hang more heads on the wall. Gunning down goats from helicopters is the stuff of warfare, and PETA is calling on the National Park Service to use only humane population-control methods.”

Kristin Combs, the executive director of the Jackson Hole-based wildlife animal advocacy group Wyoming Wildlife Advocates, said she was disappointed in the park’s decision to use lethal control methods, calling the initiative “counterintuitive to the park’s mandate to remove invasive species.”

“While we respect the decision to protect the Grand Teton bighorn sheep herd, using a lethal control method to remove the invasive mountain goats should have been a last-resort option,” Combs said. “We do appreciate the fact that the park opted against bringing volunteer hunters into the area to control the mountain goat population based on the precedent it would set for hunting on National Park land, but we would have liked to see some effort to relocate the mountain goats elsewhere first.”

Grand Teton National Park determined the best route at controlling the invasive mountain goat population after conducting an environmental assessment in December 2018, of which three options were on the table — take no action, use lethal methods only or use a combination of lethal and non-lethal methods.

The park studied the best effort to control the non-native species of mountain goats because of their impact on the Teton Range’s native species of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep herd, which is small, isolated and in decline.

“The Teton Range is home to a small herd of native bighorn sheep currently estimated at approximately 100 animals,” the National Park Service said in a Jan. 2 news release. “This herd is one of the smaller and most isolated in Wyoming, and has never been extirpated or augmented. The Teton Range herd of native bighorn sheep is of high conservation value to the park, adjacent land and wildlife managers, and visitors.”

The invasive mountain goat numbers have grown to about the same size as the native bighorn sheep herd in the last few years and the animals compete for food resources, and can also pose a threat by transmitting disease.

The mountain goats migrated into the Teton Range from the nearby Snake River Range after they were transplanted there in the 1960s and ’70s to provide hunting opportunities, Combs said.

The public was allowed to comment on the assessment’s findings between Dec. 4, 2018 and Feb. 15, 2019.

In September 2019, the National Park Service signed a FONSI, or Finding of No Significant Impact, document that indicated the park service opted for the option that involved using lethal and non-lethal control methods. The park was given the green light to remove the non-native mountain goats from the Teton Range in November.

Germann told the Journal last week that the park chose helicopter gunners as its control method as opposed to trapping and relocating the animals to locations outside of the park because it was the most “effective and efficient” use of park resources.

In regards to delaying the mountain goat killing effort, Germann said poor weather kept the helicopter from entering the park, adding, “It started out just too windy, then we had snow and winds high and low visibility. It’s a challenging situation and safety is a concern.”

The park issued a temporary closure to human entry for the entire week starting Sunday for the park’s mountainous midsection and posted signs and a map of the closed area. The closure has since been canceled.

Germann said the park will try again to conduct the operation when things line up.

“We work with a contractor and they have other business to do so we will set up another day and hopefully the weather will let them fly,” she said. “We will be rescheduling it, but I don’t have a date for that yet.”

In the interim, PETA is calling on the National Park Service to use this weather delay to reconsider its use of lethal control efforts altogether.

“PETA hopes the National Park Service will use this time to consider the cruel absurdity of gunning down goats from helicopters,” PETA Senior Director Stephanie Bell said in an email. “Non-lethal methods are the only acceptable approach when contending with species who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in areas where they are unwanted and are deemed invasive.”

The Post Register contributed to this report.