JACKSON — For photographers and wildlife lovers in Star Valley and beyond, the sight of mountain goats coming down off the slopes of Ferry Peak is a seasonal delight.
Dozens of the hardy white-coated billies, nannies and kids faithfully loiter along Highway 26/89 near the terminus of the Snake River Canyon. What draws the goats onto the road is the salt that is mixed into the sand the Wyoming Department of Transportation strews over the highway to keep commuters and visitors safe.
But since at least 2012, when the non-native goats appeared to learn about the mineral-rich salt, a number of them have ended up being hit and killed by motorists.
“Between Oct. 30 and Nov. 3, three goats were killed that we know about by Dry Gulch east of Alpine,” Wyoming Game and and Fish Department wildlife biologist Gary Fralick said. “I’m sure those goats are coming down almost every day. They’re also licking salt at night, too, which is really problematic.”
Collisions have since abated, partly because Fralick has been frequenting goat congregation points to haze the sure-footed animals up toward safer slopes on the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
“I’ve been moving goats off the highway with a high degree of regularity for the last two weeks,” he said Thursday.
The Wyoming Highway Patrol has been getting in on the goat-hazing duties, too, with a common goal of keeping wildlife alive and preventing potentially perilous collisions.
Photographer Jason Mihalick, a seasonal resident, was on the scene last week to document the goat gathering, which he said happens like “clockwork” from 9 to 11 a.m. each morning. A trooper passing by stopped to give him a heads up that the close-up shots for the day were about to run out.
“He was like, ‘Get your shots, because I’m going to run them up the hill,’” Mihalick said.
The officer floored his cruiser toward the salt-licking animals, which bolted, and that was that, he said.
Mihalick guessed that 95% of motorists slow to an appropriate speed when they roll by the herd. But the few folks who aren’t aware of the goats or who are in too much of a hurry are having a potentially population-level effect on the Palisades Herd, which numbers around 120 animals in the Wyoming portions of its range. Another hundred-plus animals dwell in Idaho.
“When you’re losing anywhere from three to 15 goats a year potentially, that’s fairly substantial,” Fralick said. “I think 15 goats could be getting struck [annually] and not known about.”
Fralick said there are two major times of year when the goats tend to gather at the roadside: at the onset of winter and again in the spring, when the first grasses of the year are greening up off the highway shoulder. The phenomenon, he said, is relatively new, and the goats didn’t really learn to lick the highway salt until seven years ago.
“It turns into a learned behavior,” Fralick said, “because those nannies are bringing their kids, so that attendance on the roadway is generational because it’s passed on from mom to the kids.”
One solution that has been suggested is leaving salt blocks on Ferry Peak hillsides to keep the goats from going lower, but that’s not something Fralick is keen to do for disease-transmission reasons.
“We could do that,” he said, “but I, for one, am reluctant.”
Fralick’s take is that the “primary issue” is people driving too fast. The speed limit through the Snake River Canyon is 55 mph. Game and Fish has asked WYDOT to deploy some portable messaging signs to alert travelers, but units available in the agency’s District 3, which stretches all the way to Colorado, have been in high demand.
“I’m working on getting some dynamic signs down there so we can warn people,” WYDOT foreman Bruce Daigle told the Jackson Hole Daily, “but right now they’re in use all over the place.”
Goats that are hit and killed, he said, are a trade-off from the annual effort to keep the canyon snow- and ice-free. Some 10% of the sand mixture that plow trucks deposit is salt, a necessary component to keep the sand in the mix from freezing into piles.
“It’s a shame, but we’ve got to be able to do our job, too, unfortunately,” Daigle said. “We don’t like having to pick up dead animals, either.”