Friday, December 3, 2004

Increase in mountain goat permits proposed

Express Staff Writer

To get involved:

Fish and Game is accepting public comments on its mountain goat, moose and bighorn sheep hunting proposals for 2005 and 2006 through the end of December.

For information, contact Fish and Game's Magic Valley Region office at (208) 324-4359 or the Salmon Region office at (208) 756-6274.

The number of mountain goat hunting permits available throughout Central Idaho would be increased by more than a third under a new proposal by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

For mountains ranging from the Yellowjackets near Salmon to the Smokys west of Ketchum, Fish and Game is proposing to increase the number of mountain goat permits available to hunters. In some places where mountain goat harvests have not been allowed for decades, hunting would resume.

In all, the number of mountain goat permits in Fish and Game's Magic Valley and Salmon regions would be bumped from 22 to 35. Those two regions include the lion's share of the goat hunts in Idaho, where a permit sells to non-residents for $15,014.50 and to residents for $164.50. In Idaho, a mountain goat hunt is a once-in-a-lifetime permit draw.

Specific increases include four new permits for the Sawtooth Mountains, where mountain goat hunting has not been allowed since 1988. One permit would be available for the northern Lemi Mountains, where hunting has not been allowed since 1974.

One permit would be allowed in the upper Loon Creek basin in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. Hunting has not been allowed in that area since 2002.

Another part of the proposal by Fish and Game is to redraw the mountain goat hunting unit boundaries so hunters focus on specific goat populations. "It won't be an arbitrary line that goes down a ridge," said Magic Valley Region wildlife manager Randy Smith.

Boundaries aside, the proposed increases are rubbing the Wood River Valley's foremost mountain goat advocate the wrong way.

"I don't think the animal is increasing. I think the animal is stable," said Hailey resident Nappy Neaman. "I think they've had low counts with their aerials. Recreational skiers are getting in trouble for affecting the goats, and we're giving these people permission to go kill some more. Snowmobilers and skiers aren't killing goats."

But wildlife managers said the increase in goat populations is unmistakable.

"Certainly there are more goat permits," Smith said. "Our goat numbers were the highest we've seen in 10 to 20 years. The biggest increase is in reopening the Sawtooth hunt."

With financial assistance from the Idaho Conservation League, the U.S. Forest Service and Sawtooth Society, Fish and Game conducted aerial surveys last winter that showed goats are doing better than many people thought.

In fact, because Fish and Game and Forest Service officials suspected goat populations were on a downward slide, Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, might have altered a wilderness proposal for the Boulder and White Cloud mountains to give the goats a larger buffer. In the end, however, that's not what the survey showed.

"This are a lot more goats than anybody ever expected," said Fish and Game Conservation Educator Kelton Hatch. "We heard we had a good population, but herds are expanding and doing really well."

Hatch works for Fish and Game's Magic Valley Region, but the Boulder, White Cloud, Sawtooth and other Central Idaho mountain ranges span an area governed by several Fish and Game management regions. The Salmon and Magic Valley regions cooperated last winter on the goat survey, which was conducted during January and February.

From either jurisdiction's perspective, goat numbers appear healthy. Populations in the White Cloud and adjacent mountain ranges are up 63 percent over levels indicated in a 2002 survey. Numbers in the White Cloud Mountains alone (hunting unit 36A) are up 124 percent. Numbers in the Sawtooth Mountains came in at 170 animals compared with 86 counted 10 years earlier.

In 1988 in the White Cloud Mountains, the state agency estimated the populations at 278 animals, compared with only 146 in 2002. But Keegan maintains that the 2002 numbers are flawed because of incomplete data and borderline monitoring conditions.

"I tried to make that caveat every time we talked about the goat studies," he said. "A lot of the reason we went in last winter was to clear up that question mark."

Neaman remained unpersuaded.

"They've done an aerial. That's all they're basing this on," he said. "The Fish and Game gets money from the ICL and some other people to fly a better flight. They fly for a couple days, and all of a sudden they have a 160 percent increase."

According to Keegan, mountain goats are particularly vulnerable in winter when they are generally confined to lower elevations where they can successfully forage for food. With food sources waning in winter, the animals must conserve their energy to stay healthy and cannot afford to repeatedly run away from their home ranges.

"Basically the way they survive winter is to die slowly until it gets good again," he said. "They're losing body weight and condition all winter, and that's just how they go through life."

Mountain goats in the White Cloud and Boulder mountains are the southernmost native goats in North America. They arguably are the signature species of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area.

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