Opioid darts, helicopters, refrigerator trucks: How to move a goat from one mountain range to another

(Ramon Dompor / The Seattle Times)
By Evan Bush
Seattle Times staff reporter
Published October 18, 2018

For the Olympic Peninsula mountain goats, it plays out as an abduction.

A machine roars above, hovering. They feel the prick of a dart or become entrapped  in a net.

Soon, a human being whose informal job title is literally “mugger” corrals them. A jab of the needle seeps a calming sedative into their bloodstream.

Within minutes, they’re dangling by rope beneath a helicopter, soaring to a makeshift veterinary center where they’re inoculated, tagged and loaded into narrow crates for a road trip.

Dazed, they’ll be released nearly a day later, dozens of miles and an ocean channel away.

This bizarre process is part of a plan — hatched years ago — to rid the peninsula of the creatures that national-park officials haven’t wanted for decades, and to help rehabilitate a population where they’re native, and struggling, in the North Cascades. Officials this year translocated nearly 100 goats between Sept. 10 and 24.

From the goats’ perspective, researchers say it’s a traumatic experience. To humans, it’s a feat of logistics.

How a mountain goat is 'mugged' How a mountain goat is 'mugged'
(Reporting: Evan Bush, Graphic: Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)

TO MUG A MOUNTAIN GOAT is about as simple as it sounds.

“It’s certainly macho stuff,” said Bob Garrott, a professor of ecology and wildlife management at Montana State University, who has taken part in similar translocations but was not involved in this project.

First, a helicopter pilot flies within about 25 feet. “You’ve got to be pretty darn close,” said Jim Pope, owner and chief pilot of Leading Edge Aviation, which carries out the captures.

Then, a gunner fires at a goat with a net gun or dart gun, avoiding air currents created by the chopper’s rotors.

“Nets are always preferred,” Garrott said. “You don’t have the uncertainty of the drugs — the pharmacological reaction.”

The darts contain the powerful synthetic opioid carfentanil. Gunners typically use darts in rugged terrain where boulders or trees could snag nets, or when nets put animals at risk.

The drug tranquilizes animals in minutes, which prevents them from tumbling off cliffs, for the most part.

Like people, animals have different drug sensitivities. “There’s always a chance you could overdose the animal,” Garrott said.

Once the goat is drugged or netted, a mugger must corral it.

“Most of the time, we don’t land,” Pope said. “We hover. You just step out. It’s not a big jump.”

With animals caught in the net, “there’s wrestling involved,” Pope said.

For tranquilized goats, muggers inject a drug to reverse the opioid’s effects.

“Once we got them on the ground and they’re anesthetized, we like to reverse them and get them breathing again,” Pope Jr. said.

Then, muggers inject a mild sedative to keep the animal calm during travel. They cover the goats’ horns with a rubber hose-like guard, wrap their legs with hobbling straps, pull a mask over their eyes and sling them into a harness before liftoff.

For the goats, the process can be disorienting.

“Think about some big alien grabbing you, physically restraining you, shoving you in some kind of compartment, taking you to a foreign place and turning you loose. These animals are going to be stressed out,” Garrott said.

It’s dangerous. Animals get killed.

“We lose helicopters and people, too,” Garrott said. A Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW) biologist in 2007 was killed by a helicopter blade during a bighorn-sheep relocation. “Folks are putting their lives on the line for conservation.”

Historic article clipping on mountain goats
For this February 1948 article, Olympic National Park officials told The Seattle Times an estimated 100 goats lived in the Olympic mountains. Four goats came from the Canadian Selkirks in 1925, according to the article. Eight arrived from Alaska in 1929 in an exchange for Olympic Roosevelt elk calves. Most goats were released at Mount Storm King, beside Lake Crescent. Locals thought the goats had died, but noticed white forms on high crags in the early 1930s. (The Seattle Times)

WITH WILDLIFE, our mistakes often multiply.

A hunting group brought mountain goats to the Olympic Peninsula in the 1920s. Numbering just 12 when they arrived, they proliferated. Before relocations this year, officials estimated about 700 lived on the peninsula.

For decades, park officials moved goats and planned their eventual eradication. But protesters objected, academics challenged the park’s science and public distrust bubbled over. When a congressman got involved, the park relented.

Since then, some goats have become habituated, or accustomed to people. Some seek salt, often licking sweaty outdoor gear or lapping up hikers’ urine. A handful became aggressive.

When a goat fatally gored a hiker in 2010, park officials called off their detente.

In 2014, officials began a public process on goat management, finalizing a plan this year to rid the park of goats once and for all.

They framed it as a win-win. Olympic officials could restore the park to its natural ecology. Plus, by transferring goats to the North Cascades, biologists hope to boost genetic diversity there and increase a population still flagging after overhunting halted decades ago.

Patti Happe, wildlife branch manager for Olympic National Park, said the park has been intentional and forthright: It plans to kill the goats it can’t catch — hundreds of them.

“There’s no secret plans. What we said we were going to do, we are doing,” she said. “We’re going to treat them as humanely as possible.”

For now, the focus remains on live capture.

Goats are captured at Olympic National Park and taken by helicopter to relocation crews. (Ramon Dompor / The Seattle Times)

IT’S A BRISK SEPTEMBER MORNING near Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park’s popular drive-up tourist destination, and two goats are dangling by a rope beneath a candy-apple-red helicopter.

Dazed, the goats spin listlessly, hooves hanging, seemingly hunched over their harnesses. As the helicopter descends, the masked goats betray little expression, as if they did not notice they’d cruised hundreds of feet off the ground.

Goats dangling from a helicopter
Wearing eye masks, horn pads and leg straps, goats dangle from a helicopter. (Ramon Dompor / The Seattle Times)

It’s like “they have two glasses of wine, their blindfolds go on and they take a little ride,” said park- service wildlife veterinarian Jenny Powers.

A handler, wearing latex gloves, guides the goats into a waiting pickup truck. Other handlers hop in to help. They check the goats’ gums, looking for pink coloration.

“That’s the fastest way to see if they’re breathing,” Powers said. Blue gums mean trouble.

The handlers are careful to keep the goats lying comfortably on their chests, which helps prevent dangerous bloating. Sometimes, the mountain goats belch, venting gases from their four-chambered stomach, where microbes ferment nibbled shrubs and grasses.

“It smells sweet and very fermented,” Powers said. “I love that smell. That means they’re healthy.”

In the bed of the pickup, handlers gently hold the goats and the truck takes off for a picnic area converted to a medical camp.

Gloves are required.

Carfentanil, the synthetic opioid in the darts, is about 10,000 times more powerful than morphine for humans, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Gloves protect against accidental exposure.

Anyone touching animals carries a plastic container filled with opioid-reversing drugs, including fast-acting Narcan, known for treating heroin overdoses on Seattle streets, and another drug that’s even stronger.

Just in case.

Veterinary staffers check over the goats’ health, take samples and tag their ears. (Ramon Dompor / The Seattle Times)

BENEATH A CAMPING CANOPY, veterinarian Allison Case, of Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, stands over a folding picnic table with her patient, a 73-pound mountain goat freshly plucked from the Olympics’ Bailey Range. A bag of IV fluid drips down to the goat.

Case works through a checklist of care. Even with a paparazzi crowd of Seattle media members surrounding the tent and angling for shots, she spares not a moment for modesty.

“It’s a male,” Case says. “The perineum is gorgeous! Scrotum normal.”

The mountain-goat kid, with rubber straps around his ankles, lies on his side as Case glides her hands over the goat’s body. His tufts of thick hair — snow-white and fluffy at a distance — look raggedy, like an old carpet in need of cleaning.

Still blindfolded by his eye mask, the goat’s nostrils flare inside a plastic cup pumping supplemental oxygen, and his respiration fogs the plastic.

“I’m going to tickle his nose,” Case says, as she swabs it for testing. He wriggles.

“Hi buddy, that’s a good boy,” she coos at him, soothing and complimentary.

Case and several helpers work quickly: They extract blood, apply anesthetic, punch a hole in the goat’s ear to collect skin for DNA testing and install a barcoded ear tag. A member of Case’s team sticks a thermometer into the goat’s rectum and scoops stool for sampling.

The veterinarians aren’t sedating the kid goats, but Case gently sticks about a half-dozen other needles into the goat and loads him up with antibiotics. The vets want to bolster his health for the journey ahead and in his new home.

IN LESS THAN TWO WEEKS, a helicopter crew captured 115 goats, according to a park count. A team of about 175 people — among them biologists, veterinarians and volunteer drivers — managed to successfully move 98 mountain goats across the state.

Six goats tumbled over cliffs or were killed by darts during capture. Two died during transport. Three were euthanized because of suspected disease or behavioral problems. Six orphaned kids were taken into captivity.

“The operation went very well,” Happe said. “These are not cows we’re moving behind the back of the pickup from a pasture. These are mountain goats in a mountain capture that we’re shipping over in the middle of the night. The survival rate is phenomenal.”

Mountain goats' path from Olympic National Park to the North Cascades Mountain goats' path from Olympic National Park to the North Cascades
Source: National Park Service (Emily M. Eng / The Seattle Times)

TO MOVE A MOUNTAIN GOAT from one mountain range to the next requires helicopters, ferries and automobiles. The crews aim to keep the time between capture and release to less than 24 hours.

“We don’t have enough time in any one day,” said Rich Harris, the WDFW biologist leading the agency’s work to translocate goats.

The goal is to keep surroundings cold, dark, quiet and relaxing. Each animal is loaded in a separate crate because billy goats tend to act violently if housed with others.

Most of the time, crates are loaded into a refrigerator truck, which can hold nine animals. Nannies and kids are kept close so they can see and smell one another through crate openings covered with wire mesh.

Each crate is labeled with a goat’s ID number, gender, estimated age, weight and load time. The label indicates whether the goat is habituated and if it needs to be released together with another animal. Kids will fare better if they stay with their mothers.

Vets found most of the captured goats to be healthy, Happe said. This late in the season, the animals should be near peak condition. They’ve munched on plants all summer in anticipation of winter’s starvation diet, in which they can burn off 20-25 percent of their body weight, according to Garrott. Pregnant nanny goats have already given birth and the kids are growing fast. The fall mating season will soon begin.

As the goats cruise down Highway 101, drivers blast the refrigerator truck’s cooling system.

“They want those goats kept at 48 degrees,” said Rod Steinman, one of about 70 volunteers who hauled the goats east across Puget Sound by way of the Kingston-Edmonds ferry. Drivers were asked to stop every hour for 10 minutes to ensure the animals were getting enough air.

On the first day of transport, two goats died.

“We caught some really big billies. They were 300 pounds,” Happe explained. The crates, tested during a previous trial run, were too small.

“It was too stressful. They were too contained. The cause of death in the necropsy was capture myopathy,” she said, referring to a disease in which stress leads to organ failure. “We will be building bigger crates for next year.”

Goats spring from their crates as they’re released into their new home, the Cascade Mountains. (Ramon Dompor / The Seattle Times)

ABOUT FIVE MILES from Stillaguamish Peak, one of five release sites this year in the North Cascades, a helicopter descends slowly toward the highway on forest-service land, whipping up enough moisture from the dampened trees that it might as well be raining.

Technically, it’s still summer, but early in the morning it’s finger-numbing cold. A light mist hangs in the trees, but it’s finally clear enough to fly.

“All summer long — nice and clear. Ninety days,” said Rich Dahl, the helicopter contractor’s ground crewman, assessing the weather forecast for two weeks of releases. “We picked two weeks of rain.”

The weather had left officials improvising. When the helicopter was unable to fly, crews released goats in lowland areas, not ideal for survival.

On this morning, after the helicopter pilot objected to the planned landing spot, officials decide to blockade Mountain Loop Highway and use it as a helipad.

Volunteers, arranged around the goat crates like pallbearers, march the dazed creatures, captured the afternoon prior, from the refrigerator truck to the middle of a bridge. Then, Dahl connects the crates to the helicopter, two at a time.

The pilot fires up the engine and takes off, straining against the goats’ weight as the machine rises into the sky. On Stillaguamish Peak, biologists await the special deliveries.

Video captured by WDFW shows crates arranged in an orderly row. Two lines of plastic fencing run parallel to the slope’s fall line, directing goats to their natural habitat — rocky terrain farther uphill.

When handlers open the crate doors, the animals slowly trot to their new homes. The nanny goats remain purposefully sedated so they won’t outrun their kids in the frenzy of their release to freedom.

Researchers expected the goats to scatter, and sure enough, a goat high-jumps the fence and darts downhill.

“The hope is they find each other and group up,” said Jennifer Sevigny, a wildlife biologist with the Stillaguamish Tribe. The tribe, which championed the project, helped purchase GPS-equipped collars to track the animals.

Those collars, which are attached to most adult goats and should operate for several years, ping with a single GPS coordinate each day, Sevigny said. Researchers will track where the creatures settle, if they connect with other goats and if they survive.

“I think they’ve got a good shot,” said David Wallin, a professor of environmental sciences at Western Washington University. “Get through the first few weeks and their survival rate is going to be comparable to native goats.”

Two goats died in the weeks after their release, WDFW’s Harris said. The rest have been moving around, exploring. One habituated goat settled for a few days at Rattlesnake Ledge near North Bend, unafraid of the droves of hikers populating the trail and snapping photos of her.

After a WDFW attempt to capture and relocate the goat failed, she moved away on her own, Harris said.

Goat standing on Rattlesnake Ledge
A mountain goat that once lived at Olympic National Park took up temporary residence at Rattlesnake Ledge, a popular destination for hikers near North Bend. The goat was not afraid of people and not aggressive, but it got within about 12 feet of people, said hiker Hella Döge. "The goat was actually following us. Everyone shuffled around and tried to keep distance from the goat," she said. (Photo courtesy of Hella Döge)

DARKER DAYS LOOM for goats remaining in Olympic National Park.

Park officials plan two more rounds of helicopter capture next year. They expect to begin fatally shooting goats in 2020. Some will likely be shot from a helicopter. Officials are considering letting volunteer marksmen take aim, too.

Still, they know that this is historically the point at which the park’s plans have been thwarted.

“Will society, when push comes to shove, let you get the rest of the job done when it means killing animals?” wondered Garrott, the Montana ecologist.

The hunting group that brought mountain goats to the peninsula a century ago could hardly have predicted the controversy it would grow — or that its actions might lead to one of the largest goat kills of all time.

Running mountain goat
(Mark Nowlin / The Seattle Times)