The Decades-Old Mountain Goat Debate That Came Before Saturday's Tragic Death

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You don't have to look very hard to find tragedy in the death of Bob Boardman, the hiker gored in Olympic National Park on Saturday by an aggressive mountain goat. Boardman, 63, had only recently married his longtime love. He was enjoying lunch on a beautiful day with his new wife and a friend when he was charged and stuck in the thigh by an animal that had given park officials fits in the past. It was a sad end to a life lived well. And if a contentious debate some two decades ago had swung another way, it might not have had to end at all.

First, a quick history of the mountain goat in Olympic National Park. Provided to us by spokesperson Barb Maynes.

Sometime in the 1920s, a group of men rounded up some 11 mountain goats from Alaska and Canada and set them loose into the Olympics. Isolated by glaciers, the mountains were missing the normal cast of characters -- grizzly bear, porcupines and those goats -- that are endemic to most ranges in the Pacific Northwest.

But the goats soon became a nuisance. And by the 1980s, their population had grown to over 400.

There was no way to trim the herd -- hunting had been illegal since Olympic had gotten its national park designation in 1938. And according to park officials, the herd was doing a number on the ecosystem by eating up all the native plants.

At first Olympic tried to resolve the mountain goat problem by rounding up all the animals using helicopters and nets. But capturing a creature that can walk across a sheer rock-face isn't easy, especially when it involves maneuvering a chopper into tight spaces at high altitude.

When the live-capture program was scrapped, the National Park Service came up with a different, more controversial, plan: shoot and kill all the goats.

The elimination of the goats became a contentious issue, pitting conservationists against environmentalists and drawing attention from national outlets on both sides. A headline from a 1995 P-I article sums it up: "MOUNTAIN GOAT FOES, FRIENDS LOCK HORNS IN HEARING."

What came out of those debates was...nothing. Well, not nothing at all. The plan to kill all the mountain goats was shelved in lieu of more evidence that they were actually destroying the natural habitat. But in the 15 years since there have been no big movements to kill, sterilize or otherwise take care of the mountain goat problem.

It doesn't seem to be the failing of any one individual or organization. This is not an attempt to assign blame. It's just my way of trying to figure out what events might have led up to Bob Boardman's face-off with a wild animal on Saturday. And why there's good reason to think it might never have happened had things gone differently oh so long ago.

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