Game and Fish Commission condemns aerial shooting of goats

JACKSON — State wildlife officials are blasting Grand Teton National Park’s decision to lead off its mountain goat eradication efforts with aerial gunning.

Meeting in Cheyenne on Wednesday, the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission broached the topic unexpectedly and signed off on a resolution opposing the park’s plans for this winter. Instead of shooting the nonnative goats from a helicopter, the governor-appointed board is seeking a hunt open to volunteers, an approach the park has also authorized.

“Having government personnel kill mountain goats from helicopters and leaving them to rot and be wasted is unacceptable,” Game and Fish Commission President David Rael wrote to acting park Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail. Grand Teton National Park’s “refusal to utilize statutory options allowing skilled volunteers to harvest the mountain goats is shortsighted and sets a dangerous precedent.”

The eradication plan, years in the making, was finalized last fall. At the urging of the state, the national park altered its decision to allow the use of “skilled volunteers,” i.e., hunters, to remove the exotic goats, which are considered a threat to the survival of the Teton’s native bighorn sheep herd. But the plan is flexible, also allowing for aerial and ground-based gunning from contractors and rangers.

When park officials rolled out their plan Jan. 3, they announced aerial gunning would be the method of choice for the first winter. A vast portion of the Tetons was closed to accommodate the contracted shooters, but ongoing winter storms have kept helicopters grounded. The cull was subsequently called off and rescheduled for later this month or in early February.

Grand Teton spokeswoman Denise Germann said Thursday that Wyoming Game and Fish’s appeals have not led to any change in plans for this winter. Besides the written resolution, Noojibail and Game and Fish Director Brian Nesvik have been discussing the method of choice for killing off the Tetons’ goats.

“We do plan to continue with the aerial, lethal removal,” Germann said. “We need to move quickly.”

Aerial gunning, she said, is the most efficient and effective way to cut down the 100-plus-animal goat herd, which dwells in Cascade and Snowshoe canyons and beyond.

Game and Fish Commissioner Mike Schmid, of La Barge, said Thursday he doesn’t buy the urgency argument. The park, he said, dragged its feet for years after proposing to eradicate its mountain goats, during which time the population exploded.

“That’s laughable to me that they want to get this done as fast possible,” Schmid said.

Schmid said he would agree to aerial gunning if it came last as a measure to clean up lingering goats after hunters had their opportunity over a year or two. But as the go-to option, he said, it doesn’t sit well.

“I think overall it flies in the face of Wyoming values, shooting stuff and leaving it lay on the mountain,” he said.

Allowing an impromptu hunt on National Park Service lands — where the activity is generally prohibited — is not without controversy. The federal John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management and Recreation Act, passed last year in Congress and signed into law by President Trump, contains a provision that opened the door for Grand Teton to authorize volunteer hunters. Some Park Service watchdogs at the time were disappointed.

“We believe this amounts to an ad-hoc hunt,” National Parks Conservation Association staffer Sharon Mader told the Jackson Hole Daily. “We supported the park’s preferred alternative, which said that the lethal removal would be done by ranger sharpshooters. Given that was the park preference, it was unusual that they decided to go with volunteer hunters.”

Grand Teton’s Germann contends that “hunting” is not a fair description of what would happen. “Cull” is a better term, she said. The specifics of how a “skilled volunteer” program might work were never sorted out.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission has otherwise supported the goal of removing the Teton’s nonnative goats, even authorizing an extremely aggressive hunt just outside park boundaries to assist in the effort.

It’s the method that is proving to be the sticking point.

“The Commission strenuously urges the National Park Service to immediately cancel plans to kill the mountain goats via aerial gunning,” Rael wrote to Noojibail, “and implement a plan allowing the mountain goats to be removed by skilled volunteers.”