Viewpoint: Consider mountain goats in forest planning
Both the Lolo National Forest and the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest (NP-C) are developing forest plans to prescribe future management and uses of lands they administer. The NP-C will accept written objections to their released draft final plan through January 29, 2024.
The Lolo and NP-C national forests adjoin along the Montana and Idaho state line that follows the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains west of Missoula. Within this vast forest complex sprawls the 252,000-acre Great Burn (also known as the Hoodoo roadless area).
For 50 years, the Forest Service has managed this magnificent landscape of mountains, meadows, lakes, and streams to preserve its wilderness character. That management has afforded solitude for non-motorized recreational use.
Importantly, past management of the Great Burn provided secure habitat and a vital dispersal corridor between the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area to the south and the Cube Iron/Cataract area and Cabinet Mountains to the north. As such, it serves to facilitate gene flow across these landscapes for threatened species such as grizzly bears, Canada lynx, and wolverines. Other species sensitive to human disturbance occupy the Great Burn, including hoary marmots and mountain goats.
I’ve had a special interest in mountain goats since the 1970s when I spent two years in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness studying their ecology and conservation needs. That time forged a lifelong appreciation for the inherent values of wild lands and wilderness—including a secure place for species that require “space” away from human activities.
Recently, another scientist and I completed a statewide status review of Montana’s mountain goat populations—the first undertaken since the 1940s. Our review of population data collected by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists across those seven decades revealed that Montana’s native goat populations have declined by 70 percent.
Hunting permits and observational opportunities have plummeted as a result. Montana is pursuing both research and management strategies to hopefully arrest and reverse the decline. Importantly, the Lolo National Forest’s planning process is treating the mountain goat as a species of special conservation concern. Elements of the Lolo Forest Plan will help safeguard the viability of the species into the future.
Goat populations elsewhere in the US and southern Canada have likewise fallen. This includes the Blacklead population inhabiting the Idaho side of the Hoodoo, which has declined from over 100 animals to less than 20, according to Idaho Fish and Game records. Those records indicate unauthorized recreational snowmobile activity near wintering goats as a suspected contributing factor.
The NP-C’s draft final forest plan does not recognize the mountain goat as a species of special conservation concern even though Idaho’s 2017 state wildlife action plan recognizes it as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need, priority Tier 3. And the NP-C forest plan fails to manage the Hoodoo as recommended wilderness. Instead, 40,000 acres of the area would be opened to motorized access, including snowmobiles and snowbikes.
Biologists continue to learn why goat populations are in decline and about their conservation needs. It’s a species sensitive to disturbance and changes in its environment, more than we realized not many years ago. Goats do best where conflicts with human activities are limited, like many other obligate wilderness species.
From 50 years of experience observing, photographing, and studying the animal in Montana and Idaho, one thing I do know is this: Perhaps no other large mammal is as emblematic as the mountain goat of truly wild lands—lands featuring the rare character defined in the 1964 National Wilderness Act. Where you find mountain goats, you find wilderness.
We humans enjoy many choices for recreating and trammeling America’s wildland heritage. Grizzly bears, lynx, wolverines, and mountain goats do not. Please take a few minutes before January 29th to write the Nez Perce–Clearwater National Forest. Tell them to manage the Great Burn/Hoodoo to protect sensitive and threatened wildlife and recommend the area’s inclusion in the National Wilderness Preservation System.