The way Wood River Valley resident Nappy Neaman sees it, the people of Idaho are going to wake up next fall surprised to discover one of their state's signature species, the mountain goat, is being hunted at an accelerated rate.
"While you were sleeping. That's the whole theme of this thing," Neaman said. "This is the prime example of an issue where people come to me and ask, 'When did this all happen?' The idea is to really let people know what happened while they were Christmas shopping."
Under a new plan, unanimously adopted by the Idaho Fish and Game Commission Jan. 20, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game will issue 17 additional mountain goat hunting permits this year. In all, the commission increased the number of statewide permits from 40 to 57.
The number of mountain goat permits in Fish and Game's Magic Valley and Salmon regions was bumped from 22 to 35. Those two regions include the lion's share of the goat hunts in the state, where permits sell to non-residents for about $1,500 and to residents for about $160.
It is a new strategy for an agency that, from the 1970s through 1990, continuously trimmed the number of mountain goat permits available.
But from the onset of the proposal, Neaman was discouraged by the state agency's process in adopting the additional tags. First, regional department meetings about the recommended increase were poorly publicized and held during the busy weeks leading up to Christmas. Second, he said he was practically ignored when he testified at the Fish and Game Commission meeting in January.
"It was really, really demoralizing," he said. "From the first moment I opened my mouth, I was deflated because I saw it was in one ear and out the other."
The story of the increase in permits is somewhat circuitous and has its roots in the seemingly unrelated discussions about wilderness designation in the Boulder and White Cloud mountain ranges.
Potential wilderness designation spurred an unlikely investigation into mountain goat populations in the ranges last winter, and results showed the goats are doing quite well.
While Congressman Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, was piecing together the varying components of a Boulder-White Cloud wilderness bill last year, 2002 surveys surfaced that pointed to a dramatic decline of mountain goat populations, particularly in the White Cloud Mountains.
If populations were as low as surveys suggested, expanded wilderness protections might have been instituted to offer the goats additional protection.
"Had it been clear that the goats were on some sort of significant decline, then we would have looked more closely at that," said Lindsay Slater, Simpson's chief of staff. "But it never really became an issue."
During the winter of 2004, officials from the Sawtooth Society, Idaho Conservation League and the Sawtooth National Recreation Area pooled their resources and teamed up with Fish and Game to fund a detailed and atypically timed population survey of the mountain goats in the two ranges.
According to Neaman, it is not surprising that the well-funded survey uncovered more goats than previous studies, which were conducted on more conservative budgets.
The populations did not change; the research did, Neaman said.
"The goats were there. They just never saw them," he said. "If Fish and Game goes into their records, they really don't know the goat population—just a poor flight every seven years."
Neaman asked for the state to put off a decision on permit increases for an additional year, until biologists are sure how the goat populations are trending.
But his suggestion was left on the table.
"No one's going to come out and talk about this the way it really is. No one can open their mouths because they're afraid of getting fired," Neaman said.
According to research released in the Fish and Game survey, mountain goat populations in the Boulder and White Cloud mountains are very healthy.
"There 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."
Whether from the Magic Valley Region, where Hatch works, or from the Salmon Region, 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.
Salmon Region Wildlife Manager Tom Keegan thinks he has an explanation.
The 2002 survey, part of the agency's typical five-year rotation on mountain goat studies, was incomplete, he said.
"In 2002, the surveys were in late April. We had hard, crusty snow, which makes it difficult to track them. It was also later in April, when they might be moving (between winter and summer range)," Keegan said.
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."
Mountain goats live in a harsh, alpine environment, and the population in the Boulder Mountains is the southernmost native population in North America.
They rely heavily on low energy expenditures during winter to survive, rather than maximizing winter forage intake to produce energy. "It is therefore important to minimize disturbance to goats on winter ranges," according to Fish and Game's July 1990 Mountain Goat Management Plan, the state's most recent mountain goat plan.
Each winter, local public land managers issue warnings to backcountry travelers to keep their distance from mountain goats to help the animals make it through the cold months of winter.
But making it through winter with intact fat stores isn't the only survival challenge for mountain goats. Fish and Game's 1990s plan also points out that goats have very low reproductive rates and can not weather heavy hunting like some species.
"The low reproductive rate for most mountain goat herds means that the harvest rate for goats must be relatively low compared to that for most ungulates," according to the plan. "Exploration of how mountain goat herds respond to harvest is the most important research need today."
The agency's management plan also stressed how difficult it is to obtain accurate population statistics.
"Low population densities and small group sizes of goat herds severely hinder collection of pertinent information," according to the plan. "Most Idaho herds contain fewer than 200 goats; missing just a few groups can dramatically alter population statistics."
The plan also stressed that mountain goats are valued for the money they bring to the state through hunting and viewing, the latter being the greater economic asset.
"While less than 100 hunters currently hunt goats annually, many more hikers and tourists also generate monies to Idaho's economy because of goats. While this value is yet unmeasured, it is likely to be many times the value generated by hunting."
In fact, the Wood River Valley is home to two new goat viewing sites. The Sawtooth National Recreation Area, in cooperation with the Sawtooth Society and Blaine County Recreation District, spent more than $30,000 to install scopes and informational signs along the Harriman Trail, which parallels the Big Wood River beneath the impressive scarp of the Boulder Mountains.
It is unclear what kind of economic effect the two new sites have had.
Neaman, the Wood River Valley's foremost citizen authority on mountain goats, has been trekking into nearby mountain ranges for more than a decade and documenting the animals' behavior and population trends.
It's an animal that has captured his imagination and occupied a significant amount of his time.
"It's a hide-and-seek animal," he marveled. "You've really got to go out and be part of nature to see the goat. To me, it represents what a lot of us want to be: strong, powerful. During nights when it's minus 20, and you want to go home and get under the covers, they're out there."
His latest effort, in which he would have paid people to apply for goat permits and not use them, was thwarted when his lawyer discouraged the idea. But Neaman still said people who are so compelled should carry out that practice on their own. The deadline is at the end of April.
Because the goats can't speak for themselves, Neaman said he has to keep trying.
"If I let this go, I wouldn't be that close to the goats," he said. "I can't let it go. I can't accept it."