Mountain goats graze in the alpine of the Buckhorn Wilderness in the Olympic Mountains in July 2017. (Caleb Hutton / The Herald)

Mountain goats graze in the alpine of the Buckhorn Wilderness in the Olympic Mountains in July 2017. (Caleb Hutton / The Herald)

Ahead of grizzly arrival, wildlife advocates assess past translocations

Moving animals has helped struggling populations to rebound. And advocates point to past examples as evidence that “it’s not ethical to do nothing.”

DARRINGTON — Almost a century ago, officials in Alaska and Washington made a trade: 12 Alaskan mountain goats for 14 Roosevelt elk from the Olympic Peninsula.

Some of the Roosevelt elk struggled to survive in their new Alaskan homes. Meanwhile, the mountain goats thrived in the Olympics until 2018, when state agencies began moving hundreds of them to the North Cascades. There, almost all of the translocated goats died, along with many goats native to the area.

Ahead of grizzly bears’ upcoming arrival to northern Washington, historical examples raise some key questions:

When does translocation succeed?

When it fails, why does it fail?

And how often is it the best solution — rather than the source of other problems?

“Translocation can be effective,” said Rich Harris, former wildlife manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “But if the reasons for the population decline that you’re trying to help or fix haven’t been addressed, those translocated animals are going to be subjected to the same negative factors.”

‘There are no elk’

In the 1920s, Alaskan authorities sought the elk-for-goat trade as a way to expand local elk hunting.

From 1926 to 1928, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game put at least six Roosevelt elk on Kruzof Island — an unpopulated area off the coast of British Columbia. About a decade later, the agency deemed the operation a failure, according to the department’s historical report on the trades.

“There are no elk on Kruzof or adjacent islands today,” said Riley Woodford, information officer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, in an email.

In 1929, Alaska Fish and Game released eight Roosevelt elk calves on Afognak Island, near the north side of the Alaska Peninsula — hundreds of miles away from Kruzof Island. The herd thrived on Afognak Island. By 1937, officials estimated the elk population grew to 100. And over time, some of the elk migrated to nearby Raspberry Island. Today, elk still roam on Afognak and Raspberry islands, Woodford wrote.

Why translocation worked there, but not on Kruzof Island, isn’t clear. The biologist who manages those elk populations for Alaska Fish and Game did not respond to requests for comment.

Washington environmental agencies have historically used translocation to boost struggling animal populations.

In the late 1990s, Fish and Wildlife estimated only 300 elk lived in what’s known as the North Cascades unit.

So in 2003, the Tulalip Tribes and other local tribes partnered with Fish and Wildlife to move about 40 elk. Staff took the animals from forests near Mount St. Helens and brought them to a site near the south fork of the Nooksack River in the North Cascades.

Biologists believe the population has since grown to about 1,300, according to a 2020 survey.

Similarly, in 2004, Fish and Wildlife captured 35 bighorn sheep near Cleman Mountain in Yakima County and transported them to the Chelan Wildlife Area. By 2019, the population had ballooned to about 200 sheep in the 31,000 acres of grasslands south of Lake Chelan.

‘It’s not ethical to do nothing’

As for grizzly bears, translocation is the only option to jumpstart their recovery in the North Cascades, said Colin Reynolds, senior Northwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

In late April, staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and National Park services confirmed a plan to release three to seven bears every year, until there is a population of 25 bears. The agencies expect to release 11 more bears after a decade, with the hope the population could reach 200 bears in a century.

Wildlife biologists have said natural reintroduction isn’t realistic, because it is unlikely enough bears in British Columbia will ever travel south of the border and regain a foothold in northern Washington.

“The North Cascades really needs grizzly bears,” Reynolds said, referring to the area where thousands of the omnivores used to roam.

Federal agencies have spent decades studying whether the translocated bears will have adequate habitat when they arrive.

“When it comes to species recovery, it’s not ethical to do nothing,” Reynolds said. “Animals are resilient and when science suggests this is the best option to recover a species, that’s what we support.”

From 2018 to 2021, state agencies released goats at 12 sites throughout Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Okanogan-Wenatchee national forests. Other wildlife reintroduction operations might have 20 to 30 release sites, Harris said.

Agency staff used tranquilizer darts and net guns to capture the mountain goats in the Olympics. Then the animals were placed in crates and transported by truck and helicopter to the Cascades.

Wildlife biologists including Harris monitored 324 North Cascades mountain goats for a study conducted on their survival. Out of that group, 217 of the goats had been translocated from the Olympics and the remaining were native to the Cascades. Of the translocated goats, 165 died, while of the native goats, 32 died, according to the 2023 report.

“I think it is fair to say that we’ve been disappointed in some of the results,” Harris said of the Olympic mountain goat translocations. “But I don’t think it’s because we did it wrong or we made a mistake in doing it. I think it’s primarily because we brought them into a situation in which all goats were having difficulty.”

‘We may not really know’

About 40 years ago, the mountain goat population in the Olympics had grown from 12 to over 1,000. Historically, goats have prospered when moved to places they have never been before, especially when their new home has viable habitat, Harris said.

State agencies had tried multiple times to decrease the non-native population, in part because the goats harmed alpine vegetation unique to the Olympics.

So in the 1980s, officials moved 407 goats from the Olympics to mountain ranges in several Western states. Wildlife officials also opened up the remaining herd to sport hunting. Still, the goats proved resilient — at least in the Olympics.

National Park Service staff became increasingly concerned again in 2010, when a mountain goat killed an Olympic National Park visitor.

In 2015, Harris assessed the success of mountain goat reintroductions — three years before mountain goats started hitching helicopter rides to the Cascades.

When wildlife managers moved goats in large numbers to only a handful of locations, his research showed translocation to be more effective. This way, wildlife managers would encourage the goats to form new social groupings, Harris said.

The translocated goats may still ultimately prove helpful to the North Cascades population, even though their survival rate was low, Harris said. State wildlife biologists noticed that some of the goats reproduced after they landed in the Cascades.

Still, mountain goat experts are unsure about the exact cause of decline among translocated and native mountain goats in the Cascades.

“Goats are difficult to study, and attributing things like habitat changes and climate to what you do see, is also difficult,” Harris said. “So I hope people have patience and tolerance for the fact that we may not really know what’s going on for some time.”

Ta’Leah Van Sistine: 425-339-3460; taleah.vansistine@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @TaLeahRoseV.

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