Grand Teton National Park halted the aerial gunning of invasive mountain goats after the move drew criticism from state officials last week.
But some wildlife advocates say Wyoming overstepped its bounds.
“As gracious as the state is trying to sound, they have always wanted more management authority inside the park,” said wildlife biologist Franz Camenzind. “This is just another way of exerting that and getting their toe in the door.”
He pointed out that the public weighed in last year on Grand Teton’s plan to eliminate the mountain goats.
What came from that process was a three-pronged strategy. It involved aerial gunning, some volunteer hunters on the ground, and the use of a non-lethal method. The latter would involve capturing and relocating some of the 100-goat herd.
The aerial gunning was the most efficient component.
Grand Teton spokesperson Denise Germann says time is a concern. “When you’re working with invasive or exotic species, the removal of those species is more biologically- and cost-effective the sooner that you do that.”
But Wyoming Game and Fish and Wyoming’s chief executive strongly objected to the park’s aerial gunning scheduled to begin last Friday. That same day, Governor Mark Gordon sent a letter to Grand Teton acting superintendent Gopaul Noojibail rebuking the National Park Service.
He wrote of his “profound disappointment” that the Park Service had acted “unilaterally.” The governor also sent that note to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, who then intervened late on Friday.
According to the governor’s office, Bernhardt told Noojibail the park must “stand down.”
Brian Nesvik, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, says killing the goats via helicopter is anathema to citizens’ and the state’s values.
“I think it’s been made quite clear by the people of the state of Wyoming that aerial gunning of a species that’s designated as a big game species in our state, and something like a mountain goat, does not align well with their values for wildlife.”
As a department, Game and Fish doesn’t support “that type of management when there are other options available,” Nesvik added.
Nesvik says Wyoming has a long history of using hunting to manage big game populations. “We certainly don’t believe this situation is any different.”
Game and Fish has been loud and clear about the state’s position. In January, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission passed a resolution condemning the use of aerial gunning to manage goats. Instead, it urged Grand Teton to use volunteer hunters.
“As gracious as the state is trying to sound, they have always wanted more management authority inside the park.” – Franz Camenzind
Some wildlife advocates say the department’s position is disingenuous.
“The complaint by the state about aerial shooting is a completely fake complaint,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biodiversity.
He pointed out that Wyoming uses aerial gunning to kill wolves and coyotes. As part of Wyoming’s wolf management plan, wolves in the state can be indiscriminately killed this way.
Suckling argued the state has also “been opposed to wolves’ recovery and consequently has supported and called for aerial gunning of wolves on federal land many times.”
But when it comes to national parks, where hunting is illegal, Suckling says aerial gunning was the right method for this situation, not the use of “skilled volunteers” (a.k.a. hunters) on the ground.
The park already has an elk reduction program, co-managed with Wyoming Game and Fish, that allows some hunters within park boundaries during the fall. But Suckling worries that allowing more hunters inside a national park will set an “utterly unacceptable and illegal” precedent.
Wildlife biologist Camenzind agreed. He drew a parallel to the elk reduction program, which he called “fairly unpopular.”
He posited the goats will occasionally come wandering back even after the park has met its objective. That would mean more hunting activity there.
Eliminating the mountain goats is a concern because of another animal: the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. The Park Service describes their status as “tenuous.” And the mountain goats could carry pathogens that jeopardize the sheep. They also compete for the same habitat.
After the state’s protests and that of Secretary Bernhardt, Grand Teton won’t be using aerial gunning to address the problem. Instead the Park Service will rely on a culling program involving volunteer hunters. It made that announcement Tuesday after a “productive meeting” between Gordon and Noojibail, according to a press release issued by Grand Teton.
Germann said it’s important to note that “culling in a national park and traditional recreational hunting are very different.”
For one thing, Germann said, culling is done for conservation and stewardship purposes. Hunting, on the other hand, is primarily for recreation or procuring food.
Now as for the goats eliminated Friday via aerial gunning? “Our aerial operation we had last week was effective,” Germann said. “Thirty-six of the 100 goats were removed.”
The rest will be eliminated when the park’s culling program begins in the fall. But with aerial gunning halted, wildlife advocates say that means a larger window of time for invasive mountain goats to expand in bighorn sheep habitat.