Okay, I keep having issues finding good concrete information on the use of pack goats in western parks where populations of bighorn sheep and dall sheep are present. Some people argue that using pack goats threatens bighorn sheep and dall sheep populations by introducing pathogens, (specifically pneumonia) that can kill and sicken the sheep. In fairness, pneumonia can seriously sicken and sometimes kill pack goats too! In response many national and state parks are considering banning goats and several have already.
Being an equal opportunity appreciator of all things ruminant, I don’t want to have my pack goating fun at the expense of wildlife, so I understand the national park service’s caution. Yet, there are many that argue pack goats, (versus the massive herds of domestic goats and sheep grazing public lands), are not be a serious vector of disease. This argument is based on the fact that pack goats and wild relatives essentially never interact, and very few pack goats enter the back country to begin with. The final ‘nail in the coffin’ is the reality that pneumonia, heavy parasitization, and general ill health will make a goat physically unable to pack. While massive herds of sheep and goat living on public lands and managed by private permitees may be a very real reservoir of disease because they are already there when they get sick, pack goats a transient population that cannot even reach the trail head if they are unwell!
If goats are not a real threat then banning them from the back country represents a spurious rule that incorrectly limits recreational and business uses of national park and BLM land in favor of non-goat users, (the eternal struggle between horseback riders and mountain bikers on the east coast is an example of this kind of problem). So over time I am emailing, researching, and finding some actual concrete data on the effect pack goats may be having on these populations, if only to answer for myself, once and for all, what the risks are of taking goats into the back country where these sheep exist!
Wildlife Management Publications For Domestic Sheep/Goat Removal
I found a set of guidelines out on the internet put out by the Fish and Wildlife Service (http://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb5385708.pdf). In case the link no longer works, the document is entitled “Recommendations for Domestic Sheep and Goat Management in Wild Sheep Habitat” put out by the Wild Sheep Working Group. I found this document to be most enlightening, but as a pack goat owner interested in understanding the risk my animals create for wild sheep I also found it fatally flawed. Since this is my blog, I can write what I like, here goes a list of why this document is a pretty poor set of recommendations, (though I do recommend it as a read for those not in the wildlife field to understand the misgivings of those working with wildlife).
- The document admits that wild sheep die offs from pneumonia occur in the absence of interaction between wild sheep and domestic goats/sheep. It argues, however, that die offs are more severe when domestic sheep or goat interaction occurs. I wanted some type of quantification of this – if die offs already occur, there is not a strong, central cause and effect relationship between live goats creating dead sheep. If the difference in the die off is catastrophically large, (ex: no interaction, you lose 1% of your herd but with interaction you lose 30%), that would be really important to say, wouldn’t it?
- The management guidelines show an almost pathetic lack of understanding of livestock production as a business or of packing animals. For instance, the article references “packing sheep and goats” in several locations. You can’t pack sheep! They aren’t wired for it! Kind of gave you the impression that the writers couldn’t even be bothered to consider the opinions or situation of anyone other than themselves.
- Further failures on this front include the belief that grazers can cease to use goats for weed control on their allotments. What exactly is going to eat the weeds if the goats do not? It is simple to say “get rid of the goats” but no one is going to willingly bush hog thousands of acres of open ground out west to clear weeds. If you remove the goats, range quality may decline. It’s also easy to say “well, other things will eat the weeds”. If this was so…why did goats have to be introduced in the first place? If the goats leave, will these wild animals repopulate sufficiently in the empty range to do the job?
- Pack goats are, as stated in the intro, fundamentally different in their use and management to the issues surrounding goats and sheep grazed in huge herds. The management guidelines fail to address the reality that goats entering the back country as pack animals cannot physically get up a trail if they have pneumonia, are recovering from pneumonia, or are in poor health in general. Therefore, I wanted to understand why the fish and wildlife guys felt this distinct population of goats was still a serious and viable threat. I did not get so lucky.
- The management guidelines also desire strict reporting of goat/wild sheep interactions, extensive monitoring, and basically a lot of things that having been a government employee I know won’t be funded or will be inadequately funded. I therefore take issue with the plan because it won’t be effective. It’s like by spending a few million dollars the wildlife service is trying to create biosecurity for a free ranging life form that they don’t want to fence in…and that they want herdsmen to spend lots of money to fence out. Hint Fish and Wildlife from someone who has written biosecurity plans – it generally works better to fence IN the organism you are trying to protect than to fence OUT everything else! Can we fence in the sheep to better protect them? Is that a viable option?
- This is a bit of a pet peeve – but does the tone sound angry, combative, and naive to anyone else? It’s not very conducive to convincing me to take you seriously when you are both rude, clearly uneducated about livestock in general, and admit in your own document that criticisms of the goat to wild sheep disease transmission are based on a lack of scientific rigor in the studies you are basing your conclusions on. I dunno…I was expecting a bit more objectivity. I wanted to be convinced that the fish and wildlife guys knew what they were doing, and that they had solid reasons for fighting for the ban on pack goats. I was disappointed.
Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming Update
Shoshone National Forest has a current ban on pack goats and sheep within the park. However, as of February 24th 2016 the Park Service is being held in contempt of court by a judge over this rule, (according to the Billing’s Gazette http://billingsgazette.com/news/state-and-regional/wyoming/judge-holds-forest-service-in-contempt-over-wyoming-goat-and/article_ec55fba2-ea12-54cd-9a72-975b9b2b2b60.html). While the ruling does not overturn the ban on pack goats within the park, the judge has ordered the park to create a planning board that includes members of the pack goat and wool producing industries to determine how pack goats and other small ruminants may be used in the park. The contempt of court arose from the use of a single study that was originally banned by court order in 2009 from being used to justify exclusion of pack goats from forest property as the sole reason for the Shoshone Forest ban. When I find this study I will post more about it!
Wind River Range, Wyoming Update
LAST UPDATED: 9/4/16