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Olympic goats need protection

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The National Park Service’s proposal to relocate mountain goats from Olympic National Park to the North Cascades and gun down those they can’t catch calls into question the very purpose of national parks in affording us an ever-more-fleeting opportunity to experience wildness. The park should instead stick to the current arrangement of relocating or killing problem individuals.

The argument that mountain goats are “not native” to the Olympics is debatable on several levels. The root meaning of native is “born in the inhabited location.” Not only was every Olympic mountain goat born there, but so were its parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and so forth going back almost a century.

How many human inhabitants of the Olympic Peninsula can make that claim? And the only humans with a much longer Olympic pedigree than the mountain goats are the Coast Salish peoples. Yet their leaders are not among those calling for removal of mountain goats.

By stigmatizing mountain goats as “nonnative,” the Park Service implies they are harmful to the environment. They fail to see any irony in this. Equally “nonnative” humans have collectively been responsible for incomparably greater environmental damage.

The mountain goats, moreover, are anything but exotic. They have been present in identical habitat in the North Cascades for a very long time. The only thing holding back their natural expansion into the Olympics was Puget Sound.

The real reason for this proposed change is the tragic goring of a Port Angeles man several years ago by a problem goat whose previous behavior should have led to his removal.

This is a serious overreaction to the death of a single human in a century. Statistically the risk is negligible, less than that of being killed by lightning. Death in an automobile crash is just as tragic, and incomparably more probable. Given how casually we accept that much greater risk, why are so many of us unwilling to tolerate infinitesimally smaller risks in the wilderness?

Then there’s the issue of collective guilt. When a human kills another human, we do not generally round up innocent humans. That’s considered an egregious injustice. Why should it be any different with other species? What happens when a bear or cougar kills someone in the park? Time to remove or exterminate all bears and cougars? Must we really domesticate the park?

What’s the purpose of our National Parks if not to experience wildness? How many visitors to the park have thrilled to the sight of mountain goats, one of the few large wild mammals that can readily be observed? Isn’t that an essential part of the experience? And if that necessarily comes with a very tiny risk, far smaller than the risk we take every time we enter a swimming pool or an automobile, isn’t it well worth the ever-more-scarce opportunity to experience an environment only minimally affected by humans—to encounter genuine wilderness and wild creatures?

Andrew Reding, a Bellingham resident, is a senior fellow of the New York-based World Policy Institute.

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