A mountain goat and her kid in Yellowstone National Park. Although they are native in Yellowstone, mountain goats are considered an exotic, invasive species in nearby Grand Teton National Park, where officials want to kill them to protect native bighorn sheep. (National Park Service)

Update — Feb. 25

Grand Teton National Park killed 36 goats in its one-day aerial shoot Friday, an official said in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon.

The park is working toward hosting a season next fall during which skilled volunteers would participate in a culling program, the statement read. Park Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail talked with Gov. Mark Gordon on Tuesday, the statement said.

“Volunteers may not keep any trophy when participating in a culling program in a national park,” the statement said of the potential hunting/culling program. “The meat may be distributed generally to volunteers, food banks, etc., after careful screening for public health considerations.”

Grand Teton National Park said its operation to shoot invasive mountain goats from the air was “effective towards meeting our objective,” before Interior Secretary David Berhnardt intervened to pause the operation at Gov. Mark Gordon’s request.

A park spokeswoman would not say whether any mountain goats were killed and, if so, how many. The park had planned to reveal the kill numbers “as we moved through the operation this week,” Denise Germann told WyoFile.

With the operation paused, she would not comment further.

Bernhardt intervened Friday evening after Gordon sent a letter to Grand Teton’s Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail that afternoon blasting the agency for the operation. The park conducted its program for a day before the pause.

The shooting plan targeted the goats, considered an exotic, invasive species, to help a struggling bighorn sheep herd that lives in, and is native to, the Teton Range. Grand Teton officials feared that without “immediate intervention” the goats could displace sheep from fragile habitat, pass on diseases and extirpate the bighorn herd.

But Wyoming wanted hunters, not hired sharpshooters, to kill the goats and also harvest the meat. Retrieving goat carcasses was not a priority in the park plan.

Wyoming Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik said he disagrees that immediate intervention was necessary.

“I don’t subscribe to the fact there was an urgent need,” he said Monday. “Last Friday wasn’t the day that was an urgent crisis.”

Nesvik said he didn’t know whether any goats were killed. State and park officials are scheduled to pick up the conversation this week, he said. 

Gordon applauded Bernhardt’s intervention in a statement.

“I appreciate the excellent working relationship we have with Secretary Bernhardt and that he is willing to discuss this issue in more detail without the pressure of ongoing aerial hunting,” his statement read. “I look forward to a more fruitful conversation about better ways to address this issue in a more cooperative manner.”

‘Executing mountain goats’

Gordon ripped federal officials in his short letter to Noojibail (published below) on Friday. Gordon called the park operation a farce, said the park ignored an opportunity to work with its neighbors and characterized the plan as “executing mountain goats over the State of Wyoming’s objections.”

The operation was an example of “federal disregard for the sovereignty of the states,” Gordon wrote. He promised to tell Noojibail’s bosses about the disagreement, Gordon wrote.

Grand Teton National Park Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail and former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke address reporters in 2018 when Zinke led the Department of the Interior. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

“Please rest assured I will make sure your park’s attitude and willingness to find solutions is well communicated to our [congressional] delegation, the Secretary of the Interior, and others.”

The bighorn sheep herd that lives in the Tetons is designated a core native herd, under Wyoming’s bighorn sheep plan. It has never been wiped out and replaced with transplants, but is vulnerable. The bighorn sheep make up the “smallest and most isolated core, native bighorn sheep herd,” in the state, the Game and Fish Department wrote in a report.

The department agrees goats should be eliminated from the Teton Range, Nesvik said Monday.

“WGFD managers are concerned that this herd remains vulnerable to local extirpation due to small numbers, low genetic diversity and isolation, increasing disturbance from backcountry recreation, loss of historic winter ranges, and a growing mountain goat population,” a 2018 report by the state agency reads.

That same report pegged the bighorn herd in December 2018 at 81 sheep. At the same time, biologists documented 88 mountain goats, up from 66 the year before.

The park is taking a pause and will continue its conversations with its state partners, Germann said Monday. “The National Park Service has a legal responsibility to protect native species and reduce the potential for the local extinction of a native species within the park,” she said in a text message Saturday.

“Without immediate intervention the nonnative mountain goat population is expected to grow rapidly and contribute to the potential extirpation of the native bighorn sheep herd within the park,” her message read.

Wyoming’s long-standing protest

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and Nesvik had earlier protested the aerial gunning plan. Game and Fish Department conducted a robust mountain goat hunting season outside the park in the Tetons.

In front of the Tetons, Wyoming Game and Fish Wildlife Biologist Aly Courtemanch, second from right, helps move a captured Jackson-herd bighorn as part of disease research in 2015. Neighboring Teton bighorn sheep no longer descend to lower elevations in the winter and are threatened by invading mountain goats and other factors. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

Game and Fish Department set a quota of 48 mountain goats in Hunt Area 4 for 2019, an effort “to relieve competition between the non-native goats and a struggling native bighorn sheep herd there,” the agency said in a statement. An online tally showed that hunters killed 23 goats in the area, which abuts the park on the west and south, in 2019. To shoot goats inside Grand Teton, where hunting is generally prohibited, skilled volunteers would receive special authority.

Game and Fish proposes another liberal mountain goat hunting season in 2020, according to the agency website. Hunters could kill up to 48 animals of any sex and age in mountain goat Hunt Area 4. That number is the highest of any goat hunt area in the state.

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The proposed season in the area also would be the longest, stretching from Aug. 1 to Nov. 15, when including the 15-day archery season.

Wyoming hunting regulations are strict regarding the care and use of meat from big game. They require hunters to take and preserve edible portions of a killed game animal and prohibit abandoning meat at a butcher shop or processing facility.

Nesvik said the state has no aversion to a hunting season that would see kids killed. Game and Fish has numerous hunting seasons that call for the taking of young animals as part of its wildlife management scheme, he said.

He had the chance to taste mountain goat meat about 20 years ago, Nesvik said.

“It eats pretty good,” he said.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Not allowing a hunter to take his own legally taken animal for his own consumption and use is absurd. It goes way beyond the reason most of us hunt. We don’t hunt to KILL. We kill to have HUNTED. Indiscriminate killing is beyond the realm of how most of us feel about hunting! Why bother? Might as well go ahead with the slaughter. I, for one, would NEVER consider a hunt where I couldn’t take my animal…

  2. So many long and thought out comments about the goat invasion , I’m curious, how was the goat population transported to the Teton range , by cattle trucks , flown in by helicopter,carried on horseback? No ! They migrated there because their range was upset by some other animal , you can figure who or what that was , so why aren’t we capturing the goats and re locating them back to their home turf. ? And please don’t tell me it’s cheaper ,.that’s just cheap. Please reconsider the wonton destruction of wild animals .

  3. The handling of this debacle by the park’s acting superintendent should be enough to remove him for gross incompetence. The situation is complicated and the scientific data that could guide an appropriate response to the goat proliferation is unavailable.

    What do we know for sure? 1) Rocky Mountain goats are not native in recent history. 2) The goats are a highly successful species that have adapted well to the Teton high country. 3) The goats are loved by locals and visitors but, in fact, are seldom seen. 4) Native Bighorn sheep are struggling to survive due to disease and inability to adapt well to the changing climate. 5) Both the goats and sheep have been colonized or infected with disease-related pathogens from the grazing of non-native, domestic sheep on public lands. 6) Increased back country and high altitude recreation has dramatically affected the range of both species in the past two decades.

    What does science tell us about the issue? 1) There is little quality science about the high altitude ecosystems of the Tetons. 2) Limited studies suggest that there is little or no interaction between or simultaneous use of grazing areas by the two species. 3) Domestic grazing and human recreation are serious threats to both species. 4) Diseases (mostly lung infections, pneumonia) are increasingly common in Bighorn sheep.

    What do we know “nothing” about? 1) Do the pathogens carried by the goats actually infect the sheep causing disease? 2) Has there been even one documented Bighorn infection/disease/death caused by transmission from a goat? 3) Is there true interaction or cross-over, simultaneous grazing by goats and Bighorns?

    What should be done now? 1) Funding for good scientific studies should be made available. 2) Domestic sheep grazing should end immediately from all high country areas and rogue domestic sheep should be removed. This is largely done. 3) There should be a temporary moratorium on high-altitude recreational activities (at least from late fall to mid-spring.) 4) The indiscriminate slaughter of the goats should be stopped until scientific data are available. 5) A fund should be established for the possibility of moving some/all goats to a native public range (outside of the Tetons.) 6) The National Park Service needs new leadership at GTNP and needs to get their act focused on the park mission to protect the environment.

    Slow down, take a deep breath, and make decisions based on valid information not whim or personal bias.

  4. So the Wyoming Game and Fish Department wants to open the high ranges of Grand Teton National Park to hunting to deal with the mountain goat problem? Have they considered the effects all those hunters are likely to have on the already stressed and skittish bighorn sheep? The sheep already avoid humans, and lots more humans with guns running around in their high-mountain habitat will inevitably add to their stress. And how successful will the hunters be? How many weeks or months will the hunt have to go on to get rid of the goats? How will hikers and climbers feel about armed hunters blasting away at goats in the formerly gun-free mountains? What areas will the Park Service have to close to non-hunting recreationists to make sure they don’t get in the way of goat hunters, and for how long a time? It would have been far better for the bighorn sheep for the Park Service to have been allowed to carry out its rapid aerial operation to eliminate as many goats as possible in as short a time as possible. Apparently the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Governor Gordon care more about asserting the “sovereignty” of the state and expanding hunting inside the national park than they do about the survival of the Teton bighorn sheep.

    1. I’m not buying the notion that they are not native. If they were in the Rocky mountains to begin with, they could have at one time been here, or would eventually migrate here.

      1. The goats were planted in the Snake River Range by humans (the Idaho Fish and Game Department). The goats did not migrate into the Snake River Range from some other native range, they were put there by humans. Over the years, as their population grew, they extended their range from the site where they were planted and they moved north into the Tetons. That doesn’t make them native–they are an introduced species in this part of the world. And they are competing for space with a species that is in fact native, the imperiled bighorn sheep of the Tetons. The bighorns are already incredibly stressed by having to overwinter on high windswept ridges where they can get barely enough forage to make it through the winter (many don’t make it). Any competition from goats for space or food makes it that much harder for the bighorns. Humans caused the problem by planting the goats where they shouldn’t have been planted. The goats are disrupting the native sheep (whose population is down to something around 100 individuals) and could easily (in combination with excessive winter recreation) drive them to extinction. I agree that relocating them would be preferable to killing them. But I would hate to see the bighorns go extinct because the state of Wyoming has decided to throw its weight around and force the Park Service to open the park to hunting. I think it would be a mistake to open the high mountain portions of Grand Teton National Park to hunting. Don’t people care that a decades-long policy that keeps national parks free from hunting is being undermined here? It was incredibly controversial to allow elk hunting in Grand Teton back when that decision was made–why isn’t this being viewed with the same concern? It’s an anomaly in the national park system to allow hunting in Grand Teton. Almost all national parks prohibit hunting, for good reason. Now we’re going to have a park goat hunt too?