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Grand Teton goat cull works toward elimination of mountain goats

JACKSON - "Mountaineering with a rifle" is how Taylor Glenn summed up his first few hours of pursuing mountain goats in Grand Teton National Park.

The morning of Sept. 23, Glenn was soft-spoken and bummed out, having just descended a steep scree slope below Symmetry Spire after an unsuccessful chase that led him over fifth-class terrain.

"These things are a lot harder than you realize," he said. "This terrain is full-on."

A professional photographer and Jackson resident, Glenn was among the few selected and tested to become an official volunteer whose duty it was to find and kill as many of the Tetons' nonnative mountain goats as possible. At sunrise he was at Inspiration Point alongside his partners, Pete Mumford, Natty Hagood and Jacob Glissmeyer. Using binoculars to scan the lower reaches of their designated zone in lower Cascade Canyon, the crew almost immediately picked up a lone goat half a mile away, and almost 1,500 feet up into the Tetons.

It was a promising start to the first of five days of hunting goats in a place where hunting is not normally allowed - a national park. But this wasn't hunting in the conventional sense. The broadly supported goal, after all, is the total eradication of the exotic, charismatic species, an objective that's wrapped up in risks the goats pose to a reeling native bighorn sheep herd that dwells in the same range.

Ahead of throngs of tourists setting out along the same trails, the foursome hiked and scrambled, navigating willows, a technical scramble and steep scree slopes to close the distance.

When the time came to make the kill, the operation went south.

Glenn, just getting back into hunting after half a lifetime away from it, had proven his marksmanship at Grand Teton National Park's shooting range the day before. Aiming at a target 200 yards away, he landed three rounds from his .30-06 rifle in an area no larger than an apple.

But up in the Tetons, the elements, an antsy moving target, and elevated heart rates added to the shooting equation. A bullet from Glenn's rifle flew from 170 yards, but when he arrived at the supposed kill site there was a living, breathing and fleeing goat instead. Three more shots - one from a partner - sounded off from overhead in Cascade Canyon as the goat flew up a rocky face and slipped out of sight.

"I don't feel like I missed," Glenn said about an hour later, "but honestly, hopefully I did, because I don't want an injured animal running around."

A total lack of blood and hair at the site supported the theory of a clean miss.

Many hunters can attest to the disappointment of that situation. The mood wasn't brightened by the sudden appearance of a reporter and photographer, who homed in on the faint sound of rifle fire they heard from more than a mile away.

This is what Grand Teton National Park's "qualified volunteer" goat cull looked like up close. It's not perfectly pretty or clean, and it poses some risks to participants eager for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of hunting mountain goats anywhere - let alone in a national park. But slowly and steadily, the monthslong effort is working. Teams of vetted and tested volunteers are out on foot in the Tetons most days this fall, and they're having some success whittling away at a population of goats that was estimated beforehand at 100 animals. Through the first three weeks of the nine-week program, 16 goats have been felled by rifle fire.

Initially, the National Park Service selected a more efficient method of ridding the Tetons of its goats, animals that drifted up from a transplanted nonnative herd in the Snake River Range and have firmly established themselves here in the last 20 years.

Plan A unraveled in dramatic fashion last winter, while an aerial cull was unfolding.

In February top brass at the U.S. Department of Interior - the National Park Service's government parent - demanded that contracted gunners be grounded. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt became involved after hearing from Gov. Mark Gordon, who complained that the park was "unilaterally aerially executing mountain goats" while Wyoming objected. The grievance worked.

The park's acting superintendent, Gopaul Noojibail, halted the operation. But not before an initial operation that saw 36 goats - potentially a third of the herd - thinned out after just four hours of aerial gunning.

In the months that followed, Teton Park staff worked with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department's local office to come up with an eradication program that was amenable to both the federal government and the state. While going through the National Environmental Policy Act process, the park had already authorized the use of "qualified volunteers" to perform the task. Turning the public out with rifles in a national park to target wildlife - using hunters, many say - was made possible by the 2019 John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, which OK'd using citizens to reduce wildlife populations in national parks.

Predictably, that approach didn't appease everybody either. Jackson Hole resident Sharon Mader, who's on staff at the National Parks Conservation Association, blasted the more time-consuming approach in a Sept. 16 News&Guide Guest Shot.

"The mountain goat 'hunt' in Grand Teton, which runs Sept. 14 to Nov. 13, is hardly a hunt at all," Mader wrote. "It is the next step in a failed public process, a financially and ecologically costly political interference in an invasive species removal project that could have been completed in days but will now likely last for years. The factors are stacked toward failure with the park's choice of a volunteer hunt."

Even if it's a relatively slow means of achieving the goal, park officials see the program as a success. In the first week, three parties of volunteers managed to kill three goats, a number that Chief Ranger Michael Nash labeled as "outstanding" at the time.

"It was awesome to see success," Nash said. "I was super impressed with the professionalism that these three teams deployed with, and the seriousness that they took the training."

One of those successful teams that first week was a duo that knows mountaineering in the Tetons well: Teton County Search and Rescue volunteers Ryan Mertaugh and Cody Lockhart. The avid big game hunters were assigned an area that encompasses Cascade Canyon, and on Sept. 15 they set off into the backcountry with enough gear for four nights in the mountains.

Similar to Glenn's team, they saw a goat almost immediately. Problem was the juvenile was right near Guides Wall, a popular climbing spot, and so they gave the young goat a pass. They spotted the next goat right from their camp in the North Fork of Cascade Canyon, a billy hanging tight to a cliff band about 1,200 vertical feet up a mountainside. They woke before dawn the next morning, saw the goat had barely budged and started hiking up to make a play. But up at the same elevation the lone goat disappeared into the ledges and topography, which required "full-on fifth class scrambling" to access.

"Once we got there, we found where he was," Mertaugh said. "But in that hour that we found where he was, he found a bedding location for the day, and we had no chance of finding that bedding location."

The next three days of goat hunting in the Tetons were grueling.

"In my days as a hunter, I would say it's the most challenging hunt that I've ever done," Mertaugh said. "I can say that without a doubt. It was also one of the most rewarding hunts that I've done."

They covered about 30 miles and 15,000 vertical feet, according to GPS trackers, hitting features as well known as Lake Solitude and charting routes as seldom traveled as the Wigwams, along the park's western boundary. Goats went unseen until their last day, when a nanny and kid came into sight from the valley floor, near where they'd seen the billy high above camp. But the glimpse was fleeting, and by then they knew better than to give chase in the same tricky, complex terrain.

Instead, Mertaugh and Lockhart beelined it with all their gear toward Guides Wall to try to get a morning shot at the solo juvenile before climbers showed up. On the way, however, a goat high in a side drainage - about 2,500 feet up - caught their eye. Scanning, they picked up two more at a more reasonable distance at 1,200 feet up. They closed to within 420 yards and fired.

"One fell and got beat up on the fall," Mertaugh said. "We cut very small portions of the backstrap that were salvageable off that particular animal."

The other animal, a mature nanny, dropped in place and was recovered in full. The meat, which Mertaugh likened in taste to a blend of venison and pronghorn, now lives in two Jackson Hole freezers.

Although each participant is entitled to keep the meat from one goat (additional goats killed can be donated), that's a secondary concern. The primary goal is to kill as many goats as possible, regardless of whether their carcasses are retrievable.

"When it's a cull, it's not about fair chase," Teton Park science and resource chief Gus Smith said. "These are charismatic creatures, but we're trying to get rid of them."

That objective is rooted in the National Park Service's mission to preserve natural resources such as native wildlife.

There had been no evidence of mountain goats living in the Tetons since the last Ice Age, but once the alpine species drifted north from more non-native habitat in the Snake River Range they proved well adapted to the harsh terrain. Breeding wasn't observed in the park until around the turn of the century, and by 2013 biologists were estimating 10 to 15 goats in the park. That year the Park Service first pitched the idea of removing goats from the Tetons. Acting on those plans took nearly seven years, and in the meantime goat numbers grew quickly.

The Tetons' bighorn sheep, meanwhile, have struggled. The isolated, approximately 100-animal herd, which is functionally broken up into two even smaller groups, winters along high-elevation windswept ridges. Research has found that backcountry skiing activity has displaced sheep from some of their prime habitat, especially in the southern Tetons.

Mountain goats are considered a threat because they're attracted to the same habitat as the sheep, and compete for finite resources. The Teton goats also carry two of five strains of pathogens that, together, are a recipe for devastating bouts of pneumonia in bighorn sheep. Transmission between the two species isn't out of the question, and farther south in the Snake River Range the goats have all five strains of pathogens. Contracting them could cause the annihilation of a genetically unique, disease-free native bighorn sheep herd that has persisted for thousands of years.

While the method has proven divisive, state and federal wildlife managers and generally the public have favored eliminating the woolly white goats.

Although the Game and Fish commission and director resisted using contracted gunners, the agency has also assisted the park's effort - and for the last two years has allowed intensive hunting of mountain goats to the west of the park with considerable success.

The volunteer strategy inside park borders was developed with Game and Fish. There are many layers and qualifications that aren't a part of a typical hunt, such as participants having to prove they can cluster three of five rifle shots in an 8-inch target at 200 yards. Carrying bear spray, using non-lead ammunition and carrying Park Service-issued radios and GPS tracking devices are also part of the program. "Trophy" parts of any animal, like its hide, must be left behind.

The morning before Glenn, Mumford, Hagood and Glissmeyer set out into the park, they received the rundown from Nash, the park's chief ranger. The couple dozen participants who gathered, he explained, were technically employees of the National Park Service through their term of service. They were ambassadors of the park who he didn't know or trust - and that lack of familiarity was tough.

Nash also tried to brace the group for what was coming.

"This is one of the only places in the United States where you can go from the valley floor at 7,000 feet to nearly 14,000 feet," Nash told his goat-killing volunteers. "It gets technical really, really quick - and your safety is paramount."

To date the technical nature of the terrain and the inaccessibility of goats has been the largest obstacle to killing them. Almost all the teams are seeing goats, Nash said in an interview, but getting to them has been another story. Half of the eight groups that set out into the Tetons during the second week - when Glenn went out - struck out.

"We're hoping that some of that weather starts to move the goats around," Nash said, "and pushes them into more accessible terrain."

Deeper in Cascade Canyon later in the week, Glenn, Mumford and Hagood encountered some of the weather the chief ranger forecasted. While camping at elevation they were snowed on in terrain that could have turned treacherous if it iced up. In the end they overcame the "burly conditions" and walked out with goat meat in their packs and draped over their shoulders.

"I was a little rattled on Wednesday," Glenn said, "so it was nice to hold our head high walking out of the canyon knowing we did our job."

The group's five-day hunt didn't take a turn for the better until Saturday night, after scouting and hunting for three straight days and not seeing a thing. The breakthrough came when Glenn and Hagood lingered at camp, while Mumford set off into an unnamed south-facing bowl just shy of where Cascade Canyon's north and south forks branch apart. From afar they heard the report of their teammate's .30-06, scrambled down and found him. They thought better of immediately trying to find the goat's remains.

"It was too late, and we were in really dangerous, sketchy terrain," Glenn said. "And it was cold and snowing."

At first light Sunday morning they were back in the same place to gather the meat, take biological samples for Grand Teton National Park staff and to be ready in case more goats appeared.

"We took everything edible," Hagood said. "We took the ribs, the liver, the heart - we took it all."

They started the trek out content, with the mindset that they'd done their part. Still, they kept "glassing" as they hiked and soon Glenn spotted two more animals, a nanny and her kid, 800 feet or so over the canyon floor. A "terrible" bushwack later, Hagood had them in range at 200 yards and with two shots both fell, each tumbling down the ledgy terrain. They went through the same process: gutting the goats, snipping their ears for biologists' genetic sampling. Then they made the best out of a bad situation, since their packs were already totally full.

"I strapped an entire, probably 60-pound animal to the top of my pack," Hagood said. "Hit the trail and hiked out probably 4 miles back to the car with a 120-pound pack. Savage hip bruises. Just groaning the entire time, breathing heavy."

It was "shock and awe" for Cascade Canyon hikers who encountered the group, he said. At the same time, 100% of people also told them "congratulations" or "great job."

"It's because they had the signs," Hagood said, "and they all knew what we were doing."

That hike out was also the culmination of what's sure to be a lasting memory.

"We were basically hunting underneath the Cathedral Group," Glenn said.

Hagood was feeling the stoke: "It was so sick."