When mountain goats fly
Written by: Sam Montgomery, WDFW Communications Manager
Flying mountain goats doesn’t seem natural, and certainly doesn’t sound normal — that’s because it isn’t. But this species was brought to the Olympic National Park in the early 1920s, and they are causing problems in the ecosystem. It’s time to return them to their home in the North Cascades range.
Nothing can mentally prepare you for this experience. At 5 a.m., we rose from our tents and clamored down to our first safety briefing. It was a balmy 45 degrees at 5,242 feet, but the excitement in the air was palpable. At 7:45 a.m., we got our first radio call, “We’ve got two billies and a nanny coming in.”
Part of the team moved to their stations in eerie silence. The other half, myself included, silently hiked up a hill to the staging area. Wind and dust pelted our faces as the first signs of orange mesh and spinning white fluff crossed over the horizon.
Three mountain goats in little orange mesh sacks, tied in a daisy chain with blue blindfolds over their eyes and garden hoses over their horns, made their entrance into a nearby truck. Staff unhooked the daisy chains, and held onto their garden hose-clad horns as the truck drove slowly to the staging area.
It was still eerily quiet, as three sets of teams began to examine the goats. They checked vitals, removed loose wool, and prepared the goats for a journey to their new home. The quiet of the staging area kept the goats calm. I’ve never seen people working so vigorously quiet — it’s like art.
As wildlife veterinarians completed their examinations, other members equipped the mountain goats with radio collars. These collars will help our biologists keep track of survival rates, where the mountain goats move, and how they interact with mountain goats that already live in the North Cascades.
Once teams processed the goats, it was time to move them into crates. It took at least six people to move 200+ pounds of white into red crates. In all, from helicopter to crating, the whole process was about 30 minutes.
I watched as teams loaded crates into trucks to head to the release site four hours away.
In between truck loading and the next round of goats, the team headed to the food tent. It was stocked with fruit, coffee, and any type of protein bar you could want. It’s not a formal mealtime, but it’s an easy way to refuel for the next go-round.
I didn’t get to see my favorite part as only a small group of biologists were with the goats at this final step before entering their new world. But watching the video afterwards, I couldn’t help becoming emotional as I saw biologists carefully place kids next to their mothers so they could wake up comforted by being close together.
Three days in the back country left me exhausted and in awe. This process takes so many different entities working together from 5 a.m. to whenever we’re done each day.
I met folks from the Olympic National Park, USDA Forest Service, California Department of Fish and Game, Idaho Fish and Game, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Northwest Trek, Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance, University of Washington graduate students, and a host of volunteers.
In addition to those, several area tribes lent support for the translocation operations in the Cascades including the Muckleshoot, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, and Tulalip Tribes.
The multitude of agencies, both public and private, shows the coordination it takes to make this operation a success. Our work will continue when our August operations fly in.
Sam Montgomery is a communications manager at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. She spent three days in the back country observing mountain goat translocation operations in July 2019. You can contact Sam at email@example.com.