On a remote patch of mountain in southeastern Utah, 18 Rocky Mountain goats wander through plants found nowhere else on Earth and straight into a debate raging across the nation's public lands.
Last September, Utah's wildlife agency began building a population of 200 mountain goats in the La Sal Mountains, and in doing so, it launched the latest chapter in a decades-old conflict over wildlife and federal land management in the West.
Since Mary O'Brien got word from a fellow plant scientist about the first transplant of goats into an area east of Moab, the 68-year-old has been on a quest to ensure the goats don't stick around in the place she considers her backyard.
The Utah forests program director for the Grand Canyon Trust has been rallying hikers and conservationists to protect a rare example of alpine terrain in Utah and its sensitive plants, including the world's only La Sal daisies, from the goats.
Chris Wood, the southeast regional supervisor for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, expects the new population in the Manti-La Sal National Forest to have little impact on the ecosystem. That was the case with previous introductions in Utah's Wasatch Front, Uinta Mountains and Tushar Mountains.
"In those areas, goats have had no impacts on the vegetation in those alpine and subalpine communities," Wood said. "We are confident on the La Sals, that will also be the case."
The Grand Canyon Trust, the Wild Utah Project and other conservation groups have their own data. Almost inevitably, they point to the opposite conclusion, the groups say.
Wood said environmentalists won't be happy until every goat is off the mountains, regardless of whether they hurt the ecosystem. O'Brien said state wildlife agencies are running unchecked over the national interest by introducing animals to lands where they don't belong.
Until the first introduction of six goats from Washington state's Olympic National Park to the Lone Peak Wilderness Area southeast of Salt Lake City in 1967, no population of goats was ever recorded in Utah. But according to DWR's 2013 state management plan, goats are "a legitimate part of our modern Utah faunal landscape" because they are native to the "North American continent and the Northern Rocky Mountains."
Utah offers a hospitable habitat, the state argues. After 12 introductions over four decades, the state's population stands at about 2,000 animals.
Caught between DWR and the environmental coalition is the U.S. Forest Service.
The agency officially objects to Utah's goat-introduction plan but has conceded to work with both sides to gauge the species's impact.
DWR argues the Forest Service has already signed away "the primary authority, jurisdiction and responsibility to manage, control and regulate fish and wildlife populations on National Forest Service lands" in a memorandum of understanding between the two agencies.
"We'll always have a future of working with our federal partners, but I think we'll always be clear, though," Wood said. "In the United States, wildlife management is a state action; it's not a federal action."
O'Brien is focusing her fight on a small chunk of the fragile La Sal alpine landscape where she said the Forest Service has a clear obligation to protect the ecosystem.
Like the rest of the La Sals, the fenceless 4-square-mile Mount Peale Research Natural Area is home to nearly a dozen rare plants deemed "species of concern" by the Forest Service. Since 1988, the summits and ridges between three peaks, including 12,721-foot Mount Peale, have been managed under specific regulations to protect the area's unique biodiversity.
It's here that O'Brien wants the Forest Service to put its foot down over the goats' invasion, starting with an evaluation of their impact under the National Environmental Policy Act. She has picked her battle, but she doesn't limit the rhetoric to her backyard.
In a recent editorial in the Moab Sun News, O'Brien likened DWR's actions to the disregard Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy gave the Bureau of Land Management when he grazed his cattle on federal lands, leading to an armed standoff last spring.
"I know that I am putting [USFS] in an uncomfortable position, but the state wildlife agencies all throughout the West are running roughshod over the federal land," she said in an interview with Greenwire.
The argument falls largely on deaf ears in Utah, where anti-federal sentiment runs deep.
For DWR, the goal remains the same: Sustainably maximize wildlife populations to create the best experience for all Utahans.
"It's wildlife management," said Justin Shannon, a DWR biologist. "There are going to be people who agree with your decision and people who disagree with decisions that are being made."
Daisies vs. empty niches
DWR has long had its eye on establishing a goat population in the La Sals. After it identified an environmental niche vacated when bighorn sheep disappeared from the mountains in the 1950s, DWR deemed mountain goats a suitable surrogate based on habitat needs and overlapping diets.
"We chose not to take bighorn sheep back there, but had we done that, that would have taken it back to how those plant communities were used historically," Shannon said. "We were just trying to fill that niche."
Vegetation, specifically in the Mount Peale area, factored heavily in DWR's management plan, Shannon said. Data generated from years of monitoring at 1,400 sites spread throughout the state's other goat zones indicated the animals failed to cause "a downward trend in ground cover, plant species composition or shrub-canopy cover in areas where mountain goats are present."
DWR also considered the problem of wallows, areas where mountain goats clear vegetation for dusting themselves, which have plagued Olympic National Park.
Long battling a population that has ballooned since goats were introduced there in the 1920s, the park that provided Utah its first goats is looking at management options to prevent the destruction of delicate alpine plant communities through wallowing. DWR's state management plan, however, pins the blame on federal officials and a prohibition on hunting in national parks, stating widespread plant damage "only arises in unregulated populations."
Still, Shannon said DWR remains committed to protecting sensitive species in the La Sals through nine long-term vegetation-monitoring sites set up around the time of the goats' introduction.
"At the end of the day, if we don't have healthy habitat, we're not going to have healthy wildlife populations," he said.
To further transparency, Wood said the Utah Wildlife Board requested that DWR invite all concerned parties on a "field trip" to the La Sals on Sept. 23 with invitations extended to the Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy, the Grand Canyon Trust, the Wild Utah Project, local ranchers, the Utah Farm Bureau, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife and the Mule Deer Foundation.
But ultimately, the fight centers on 18 goats grazing over thousands of acres. On a recent check of the nine vegetation transects, DWR biologists said they saw few goats, let alone an impact on vegetation.
Wild Utah Project Executive Director and biologist Allison Jones begs to differ.
After a late July field trip with 15 botanists and volunteers, including O'Brien and local Forest Service biologist Barb Smith, Jones came back armed with photos documenting evidence of hoof damage, erosion and wallows on all the rare species in the research area and beyond.
"And that's just with 20 goats," she said, noting DWR would ultimately like to host 200 goats in the area.
Jones criticized DWR's data collection, which is based on a statewide habitat model, as not specific enough to determine an impact on the species of concern.
While DWR says the La Sals differ minimally from previous introduction sites, the concerned botanists and volunteers contend it's a completely unique habitat.
"They really think they're doing the state, the hunters and -- in some twisted, weird way -- they think they're doing the ecosystem a service because it's an empty niche," she said.
The Moab effect
Hunting largely drives public support for wildlife in the state.
"We have wildlife in Utah because we hunt wildlife in Utah," Wildlife Board member John Bair said in July of the state's controversial decision to allow a crow hunt, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.
When it comes to hunting mountain goats, demand outstrips supply despite increased goat populations.
Utah limits goat-hunting permits to one per hunter per lifetime. The allure of the hunt easily overcomes deterrents like price -- $413 for residents and $1,518 for out-of-state hunters -- or the 1-in-50 odds of winning one. Almost 8,000 hunters put in for 161 tags in 2012.
Tag in hand, however, more than 97 percent of hunters got their goat, according to state data.
Not only are hunting and fishing groups like Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife -- a national organization headquartered in North Salt Lake -- instrumental partners in protecting large swaths of Utah from development, but hunting and fishing licenses generate the majority of DWR's revenue.
Because of that, DWR has "no responsibility to science" and "no responsibility to constituencies other than hunters," O'Brien argued.
Even if a division decision is scientifically driven, the "wild card" of the seven-member, governor-appointed Wildlife Board allows hunting to trump environmental concerns in one play, she said.
"It's like me going to the Taliban and asking if I can wear shorts," she said.
The environmental community's weak hand got a boost, however, when the mountain goat program came near Moab, the booming recreation capital southeast of the La Sals.
The concerted opposition to goats was "unprecedented" but not unexpected, Wood said. Any state wildlife action around Moab, a hub for environmental groups, inevitably comes with extra scrutiny.
"You get this big melting pot of diehard hunters and diehard environmentalists and everybody in between," he said. "You definitely hear from a more diverse public in Moab, whereas somewhere like Utah County [south of Salt Lake] ... it's pretty homogeneous."
'Feet to the fire'
Jones' Salt Lake City-based Wild Utah Project and its partners are trying to hold the Forest Service's "feet to the fire" after almost a year waiting for a NEPA evaluation to address what they see as a "direct violation of Forest Service responsibility and policy."
"We don't see how they can cover the impact on their watch without going through NEPA," Jones said. "That's just mind-boggling."
From his post, Shannon rejects the environmental community's belief that the plan was approved in a "bubble."
At an open house in Moab prior to the plan's introduction, Shannon said, concerns raised helped shape the future plan, but most in the room supported the measure.
Shannon also dismissed the idea that the proposal got a pro-hunting rubber stamp from either the Wildlife Board or the regional advisory councils. He said the councils -- 12- to 15-member panels in each of DWR's five regions across the state -- are purposefully "eclectic" groups including representation from federal agencies, local government, agriculture, sportsmen and environmentalists to make sure everyone has a seat at the table.
"I think the [councils] and [Wildlife] Board members are genuinely trying to do what's best for wildlife, and I wholeheartedly believe that," he said.
The statewide management plan and the unit plan, which encompassed the La Sal introduction, survived a total of 12 meetings and two votes before the Wildlife Board. At the Southeastern Regional Advisory Council vote on May 8, 2013, two members voted "no."
The Forest Service raised concerns along the way but largely signed off on the plan.
In July 2013, Fishlake and Manti-La Sal National Forest Supervisor Allen Rowley said the plan "may be inconsistent with the national Forest Service policy on the Mount Peale Research Natural Area" but conceded DWR's jurisdiction to do the transplant.
O'Brien maintains environmental concerns were drowned out by the hunting majority, so her cohort looked up the Forest Service bureaucracy.
"We were jumping up and down saying to the regional officer, 'What are you doing?'" she said.
Finally on Aug. 21, 2013, the night before the Wildlife Board signed off on sending the goats to the La Sals, DWR received a letter from Intermountain Regional Forester Nora Rasure taking "the opportunity to clarify the Forest Service's position."
By that time, Rasure's formal opposition based on the goats' potential environmental impact was too late, as DWR had already inked a contract for a helicopter to transplant the goats.
And the Forest Service's admission that it opposed the plan based on "the absence of pre-transplant data on plant communities," including the Mount Peale Research Natural Area, frustrated everyone involved in the goat issue.
Lay of the land
Prior to the arrival of the goats, Forest Service visits to the Mount Peale research site were few and far between.
The La Sals, located in an isolated parcel of noncontiguous forest, are tough to get to. Rowley said it's a multihour drive to the base of the small range even from Moab. No roads lead up the mountain, and it's a rough, rocky hike between the time when the snow melts in mid-June until it returns sometime in October.
Rowley said out of 90 full-time employees covering 1.3 million acres, only three or four would have the expertise and time for plant monitoring.
And the area was rarely a priority in an always-limited budget. In 2008, a grant from the Canyonlands Natural History Association allowed researchers to collect some data on what impact increased recreational use was having on the alpine soil, vegetation and rare plants.
Now, with people clamoring to know exactly what's on the ground in the alpine area, Rowley said monitoring has become a priority.
The Forest Service is collaborating with both sides of the goat debate to gather the information.
So far, Rowley said the Forest Service has completed a broad-scale habitat inventory and is turning its attention to the "species of concern."
"Once we have that baseline data, we will be engaging in some kind of management plan about management of goats or really more specifically of the research natural areas," he said.
In a letter replying to requests for a NEPA evaluation last month, Rowley said any determination would be premature at this point until the agency can "figure out what the problems are, how big is the issue, what if anything could we change."
While she leads the charge, O'Brien said even if her efforts are successful, "there is no guarantee DWR would even do anything."
Utah officials have said they would remove the goats if a significant impact were noticed, but O'Brien said they've yet to define what "significant" looks like. On top of that, the impacts of climate change and other animals, like deer, elk and cattle, further confuse the issue.
Environmentalists, she said, are just trying to use NEPA to force the Forest Service "to stand up for what on paper they say they're doing" to protect the Mount Peale Research Natural Area.
Ultimately, according to O'Brien, when "push comes to shove, the feds are on top." She pointed to a 1928 Supreme Court decision in Hunt v. United States, which gave the Forest Service the right to violate Arizona law in order to protect forage in the Kaibab National Forest from an out-of-control deer population. The population famously crashed in the midst of the legal battle.
Echoing DWR's Shannon, O'Brien said: "There is no way to protect habitat if you don't manage the wildlife."