Aerial gunners culled dozens of invasive mountain goats from a helicopter in Grand Teton National Park last week. The hunters successfully removed 58 non-native goats in an effort to reduce habitat competition and limit disease spread. A local herd of native Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, which are susceptible to the goat’s diseases, will benefit most from the cull.
This is the park’s third consecutive year reducing the goat population. The cull primarily took place on the northern end of the beautiful National Park. Local officials used a helicopter to eliminate a few goats stationed on particularly rugged mountain terrains.
The program began in 2020. In just a few hours, cullers eliminated and removed 36 goats that day. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon intervened afterward, stating that hunters should pay for the opportunity to participate and that their involvement would be more desirable across the board. Of course, hunting on federally-protected park land is strictly prohibited, so the park calls these hunters “qualified volunteers” and allows them a multi-day, more traditional hunt. The park also adopted the word “cull” instead of “hunt” for similar reasons.
The following year, the qualified volunteers culled 63 invasive mountain goats. Successful volunteers did not get to keep any trophies whatsoever; and the state donated meat to local tribes and food banks.
Grand Teton culled close to 100 mountain goats since removal began
This year, the park opted for more efficient means of hunting, including aerial procedures from a helicopter. According to officials, the decision came about in the pure interest of saving bighorn sheep.
“Aerial gunning is by far the most efficient method of doing it,” Grand Teton National Park’s recently-retired senior wildlife biologist Steve Cain said. “I know it’s a bitter pill to swallow for some. In some ways, it is even for me. Mountain goats are incredible creatures. But the point is they don’t belong in the Tetons. They didn’t evolve there, and there’s a native bighorn sheep herd that’s struggling.”
The non-native goats migrated into the Tetons from the Snake River Mountain Range on the Idaho-Wyoming border. But they may have had significant help, considering they were non-native to the mountain range, as well. According to local records, the goats were introduced to the range in the 1960s and 1970s as potential hunting opportunities meant to increase tourism and revenues. Obviously, the population outgrew hunting demand, and then outgrew the mountain range entirely. Soon, the goats migrated into bighorn sheep territory.
The sheep population faces two distinct issues. As lower-elevation lands became more developed by humans in the area, the sheep population fled to higher elevations; so there is a lack of available resources already. Then, when the goats migrated from the neighboring mountain range, the sheep found themselves competing with a species that used similar resources but was never meant to exist in that area.
Luckily, Grand Teton experts estimate that only about 100 mountain goats lived in the park back in 2020 when culling began. “Given the terrain, it is hard to determine precisely how many mountain goats remain in the park,” Jerry Barnum, Grand Teton National Park chief of staff said. “We removed every mountain goat that was located, but we assume there could be a few remaining in the range.”
The park estimates its bighorn sheep herd sits at about 125 animals currently.