LA SAL, Utah — Tosh Black hiked down the trail with a smile on his face.
He and his small hiking group had just seen one of the La Sal Mountains elusive creates – mountain goats. They tend to live above 11,000 feet.
“So, we were making our way up beautiful Mt. Peale,” Black explained, “and kind of looked over, kind of in the basin, actually, behind right over here.”
Black saw seven to 12 mountain goats.
“I kind of anticipated to see the goats,” Black said, “but it was always a neat surprise to see them.”
The La Sals are the mountain Moab’s visitors see when they look to the east. The mountains have plants found nowhere else in the world.
Marc Coles-Ritchie worries the goats are a threat to the mountains’ ecosystem.
“The mountain goats are not native to this landscape,” said Coles-Ritchie, the Utah public lands manager for the non-profit group Grand Canyon Trust.
“Mountain goats, they eat the vegetation in these alpine areas of the La Sal Mountains.
“They dig up the plants and then they dig into the soil, creating places where they can lay.”
The Grand Canyon Trust is particularly concerned about the La Sal daisy, which is endemic to the mountains with whom it shares a name La Sal Mountains.
“It grows nowhere else in the world,” Coles-Ritchie explained.
Bighorn sheep were spotted in the La Sals as recently as 1954. Since the wild sheep are susceptible to disease, the state looked for a similar animal.
In 2013, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources captured mountain goats in the Tushar Mountains near the town of Beaver. Then the division flew the goats to the La Sals to start a breeding population.
The La Sals currently have between 85 and 100 goats with plans to grow the herd to 200, said Riley Peck, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Coordinator over what are called “Once-In-A-Lifetime Species.” That’s a reference to how hard it is to win a permit to hunt mountain goats, though Peck said hunting has brought relatively little revenue to the state and is not a reason to expand their population.
Peck said the division was looking for a species that could fill the ecological niche bighorn sheep once provided.
“Mountain goats are one of those species that bring intrinsic value to an area,” Peck said. “People like looking at them.”
The mountain goat range in the La Sals sits on a national forest and a designated research area. In 2016, the Grand Canyon Trust was among the plaintiff who sought to remove the goats by suing the U.S. Forest Service. The plaintiffs argued the agency wasn’t managing the habitat.
“We think the Forest Service does have the authority to decide the mountain goats should not be here,” Coles-Ritchie said.
A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit because a joint study between the Forest Service and the state to determine what impact the mountain goats were having had not yet been completed.
Peck and the Forest Service both say most of that study is complete. The results have not yet been published.
“Some of those early results show that under certain circumstances in certain areas, mountain goats may have an impact on some of these plants,” Peck said, though he added there’s other factors impacting the plants, too, including drought.
“That study has given us some confidence,” Peck added, “and we believe there are not any long-term negative impacts of having goats on the La Sals.”
Meanwhile, the state is considering introducing mountain goats into a new spot in northern Utah, depending on what sensitive plants they find in the site candidate – Logan Canyon.
“This is not a decision that has been made yet,” Peck said.
Back on the trail descending Mt. Peale, Black declared, “I love the goats,” while also acknowledging the conflict.
“We definitely want to protect this very fragile habitat,” he said, “because it is very fragile up here.
“So, it does concern me a little bit about the goats. They’re awesome to see, but at the same time, we definitely want to protect our very fragile ecosystem up here.”