JACKSON — The U.S. Secretary of the Interior directly intervened in an aerial goat cull underway in the Tetons last Friday, ordering Grand Teton National Park Acting Superintendent Gopaul Noojibail to “stand down.”
David Bernhardt, who presides over the National Park Service’s governmental parent, became involved in Teton Park’s affairs after his office received a sharply worded letter that Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon sent to Noojibail the same day. The governor said he was “profoundly disappointed” that the park was “unilaterally aerially executing mountain goats” while Wyoming objected.
“Secretary Bernhardt reached out to the acting superintendent and requested that they ... stand down and not fly the helicopters,” Michael Pearlman, the governor’s communications director, said in a Monday press call. “It was probably somewhere between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.”
Grand Teton officials are being tight-lipped about the lethal helicopter-based operation, other than saying it was “effective towards meeting our objective.” The flights were expected to take up to a week but were “paused” after a single day of shooting goats, according to spokeswoman Denise Germann. Through press time Monday, the park declined to say how many goats were killed or whether an expansive area closure in the Tetons had been lifted.
“The intent is to share the information after the operation is over,” Germann said.
The Wyoming Game and Fish Department is being kept in the dark for now, along with the public. Brian Nesvik, the agency’s director, told journalists in the same press call that he was unaware how many goats were killed during flights three days prior, or whether any of the nonnative ungulates remained alive in the park.
“Their silence, that’s up to them to talk about,” Nesvik said.
Grand Teton Park and Game and Fish officials plan to meet Tuesday to discuss the future of the goat-killing efforts, he said. The state has advocated to let hunters go after the mountain goats, rather than commissioning contract gunners and leaving the carcasses in the mountains.
The state of Wyoming and the National Park Service are on the same page about the end goal of eradicating the Tetons’ approximately 100 mountain goats. The effort is designed to help a similar-sized native bighorn sheep herd that competes for habitat and could catch diseases from their exotic counterparts.
“We were concerned with the method, not the effect,” Nesvik said.
Game and Fish held an aggressive goat hunt outside the park on the west side of the Tetons last fall, and hunters managed to thin the herd by 23 animals.
At the urging of the state, the National Park Service adjusted its goat-culling planning documents last year, authorizing the use of “qualified volunteers,” aka hunters. National Park Service policies that emphasize letting nature take its course generally ban hunting.
When the park actually rolled out its goat-killing plans in January, officials announced that aerial gunning — not the so-called volunteers — would lead off the effort. The rationale was that the goats posed an imminent threat, and that using rifle or shotgun fire from a helicopter would be the most efficient way to kill them off.
Nesvik told journalists he doesn’t buy that argument. The park first pitched the idea of eradicating the Tetons’ goats in 2013 when an estimated “10 to 15” animals inhabited the range, though the plans weren’t finalized until 6 years later. In the meantime, the population ballooned.
The early January aerial operation was foiled by a weeklong winter storm, and afterward opposition from the state mounted. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission signed a resolution “condemning” shooting goats in the Tetons and leaving their remains to decompose.
When the park announced last Thursday that its second attempt at the lethal flights would occur the next day, Nesvik phoned Noojibail and Gordon sent the superintendent the letter.
“Let me begin by expressing my profound disappointment that the National Park Service chose to act unilaterally aerially executing mountain goats over the state of Wyoming’s objections,” the governor wrote. “I’m simply at a loss for why the Park Service would ignore an opportunity to work towards a solution upon which we could both agree and can only take it as an expression of your regard for neighbors and of the respect you apparently do not have for Wyoming or our professionals.”
While the goat shoot was underway Friday, that letter was emailed to Bernhardt.
“After that — and I don’t have an exact timeline — Secretary Bernhardt reached out to the acting superintendent,” Pearlman said.
Noojibail later contacted Gordon and said he was willing to have a conversation about the goat-killing plans, he said.
Grand Teton National Park did not publicize the “pause” of its operations, but after word spread Monday the governor’s press office sent out a statement.
“I appreciate the excellent working relationship we have with Secretary Bernhardt,” Gordon said, “and that he is willing to discuss this issue in more detail without the pressure of ongoing aerial hunting.”
The Jackson Hole Daily’s requests to interview the park about the suspended goat-killing operation have been declined.