Goat relocation in Olympic National Forest: An in-depth look

VIDEO: Behind the scenes of goat relocation in the Olympia National Forest

Climb 5,000 feet up Mount Ellinor and mountain goats can be seen everywhere.

For decades, the Olympic National Forest has been their home.

The goats rest on rugged rocks, skate down steep slopes and graze on greens with some of the best views in town.

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"It just makes me feel closer to nature," said hiker Roger Edwards. "Where else can you get that up-close and personal with a wild animal? It's pretty awesome."

Mountain goats aren't native to the Olympic National Forest. Hunters moved a dozen goats to the area in the 1920s.

These days, the forest service said there's close to 700. If nothing is done, the area will have close to a 1,000 mountain goats in just a few years.

"We feel like we're at the zoo, only we're outside in nature," said hiker Connie Ness.

The forest service said the goats are leaving a mark and impacting native plants and animals.

Mountain goats aren't afraid of people and can be aggressive.

"They'll follow you around. I've been backed up against rocks where they're kind of coming at you, so, it's a mix, it's little bit scary and a little bit awesome," said Bill Baccus, Olympic National Park helicopter manager.

Wildlife officials said the goats are searching for salt, which isn't naturally found in the Olympics.

"That's where they're starting to have the human problem, right? Because they're starting to follow around people for their salts and their sweat and their urine, so that's not a good situation," said Angel McCormick, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Natural Research Technician.

In 2010, a billy goat gorged a man to death near Hurricane Ridge. The killing put some hikers on edge.

"I had a little bit of fear and weariness, so we kind of dispersed and ran back down the trail a little bit until we saw which way [the goats] were going to go," said Liz Scott.

The issues inspired a massive project to relocate the goats, which started a decade ago. Multiple agencies are working together to move the mountain goats from the Olympics 200 miles away to the northern Cascade Mountains.

They're blindfolded, tied up and trekked across the national forest while being suspended thousands of feet up in the air.

"It's funny, right? I think you can't help but think, what is that goat thinking, right? You know, as it spins around," said Baccus.

Days before the move, many hikers came to bid farewell.

"We basically came up to say goodbye, so, it's with a heavy heart," said Edwards.

Edwards has been climbing Ellinor for 44 years. He's sad to see the mountain goats go.

"My friend and I, we spent a night up here once with 19 mountain goats kind of running around the little tent. They all bedded down in the summit up there and it was absolutely phenomenal and the thought that won't happen again is just really unfortunate," he said.

More than 200 mountain goats have already made the move to the Cascades. The goal is to move at least 100 more.

A helicopter crew captures the animals using darts or nets. They're dropped at staging areas, carried in on gurneys, weighed, and then they go through a full exam.

"We will do a blood sample and we'll do a nasal swab and we'll do a hair sample and we'll do a fecal sample," said McCormick.

Each adult goat gets a GPS collar so researches can track them once they're in the Cascades. The orphaned kids that are too small to be released into the wild are taken to the Northwest Trek.

According to the Olympic National Forest, about 70-percent of the goats moved in 2018 survived and are doing well. They will continue to relocate goats until it is no longer safe or feasible.

See the full story and previous coverage below. 

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