Thursday, April 8, 1993 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Vaccine May Spare Goats -- But Birth-Control Dart Concept Falling On Deaf Ears

Olympic National Park officials bent on shooting 400 Olympic mountain goats are ignoring new birth-control vaccines already controlling animal populations in other national parks and wildlife refuges, a prominent animal-contraception scientist says.

Olympic, which for years has insisted the goats must be destroyed because they trample and eat fragile alpine plants, could control their numbers by shooting females with contraceptive darts, said Jay Kirkpatrick, senior research scientist at the Deaconess Research Institute in Billings, Mont.

That vaccine, porcine zona pellucida, or PZP, is one of several now used to control populations of feral horses, white-tailed deer, bison, elk and other species in national parks and refuges where hunting is impractical or illegal. Kirkpatrick reminded Olympic officials about it in a Feb. 8 letter, in which he scolded the park for misleading the public about the potential use of contraceptives for mountain goat control.

Ironically, new, long-lasting doses of the vaccine are being developed with the aid of a $400,000 grant from the Department of Interior. Interior runs Olympic National Park, which never has requested more information about the new vaccine, Kirkpatrick said.

PZP has proven successful on tests of mountain sheep and other wild and domestic goats. "We know it works," Kirkpatrick said. "The technology has advanced to the point it could be tried on Olympic goats. The odds of it working on a mountain goat are very, very high."

The park not only has turned its back on that technology, it ordered a panel of wildlife fertility experts assembled here last year to limit their deliberations to means of eliminating all the goats, not controlling their numbers, Kirkpatrick said in a telephone interview.

Kirkpatrick, one of five scientists on that panel, said he and others were taken aback by the park's seeming predisposition to shoot the goats, when logic suggested simply limiting herds might suffice.

"I personally felt blindsided by it," he said. "We were given a very narrow charge: Can contraception be used to eliminate goats from the park? We had the answer in about five minutes - no.

"The thing that bothered us was, we were given no latitude to make other recommendations, such as eliminating one group of goats, then reducing the population of others. Can contraceptives be used to control wildlife populations? Clearly, yes."

Olympic spokesman Paul Crawford said this morning the park is aware of Kirkpatrick's research and will study the new contraceptive techniques further. "We will continue to evaluate non-lethal means whenever they come along, very clearly," he said.

Crawford said he didn't respond to Kirkpatrick's letter because he wanted to discuss it with state Wildlife and Forest Service officials first.

Critics of the park's goat management long have argued that park "research" is aimed solely at bolstering a longstanding decision to rid the park of goats, a small herd of which was transplanted from Alaska in 1922 and are considered "exotic," or non-native, species. They say the park never has presented credible scientific evidence that the goats are not native to the area, that they destroy plants, or that no alternatives to shooting exist.

Park managers say those questions should be answered by a pending environmental impact statement. The EIS is being jointly developed by the park, the state Department of Wildlife and the U.S. Forest Service, all of which have jurisdiction over Olympic goats. That report, which must be completed before final action is taken, is months overdue. Indications are that state officials are balking at the park's insistence on shooting goats.

Unlike Olympic National Park, state officials consider mountain goats native to Washington, and say they should stay - at least on Forest Service land bordering the park.

"Our position continues to be that there should be mountain goats in the Olympics," Wildlife spokesman Ed Isenson reiterated this week.

Other observers question whether the park could issue a decision to shoot goats - especially in light of the public outrage unleashed when Alaska officials recently unveiled a plan to shoot wolves - without the consent of new Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. An Interior department spokesman said Babbitt has taken no position on the matter. He added, "It would be prudent for them to go slow" while the new administration settles in.

But sources close to the EIS process say "certain elements" in Olympic continue to insist the goats must be killed to preserve alpine plants, some of which are unique to the park. Park botanists say many of those plants were damaged in the 1970s, when the park goat herd ballooned to an estimated 1,200 in 1980 before trapping, relocating and trapping-related deaths reduced numbers to about 400.

Crawford denied that. "None of us are real eager to kill anybody or anything," he said.

For years, a key tenet of the park's argument to shoot the remaining goats has been the contention that no viable population-control alternative exists.

It appears the park hasn't found one because it hasn't looked, said Kirkpatrick, whom Olympic officials themselves refer to in a newsletter as a nationally recognized authority on wildlife fertility.

"It's my professional opinion that if the will was there, goat numbers could be controlled," Kirkpatrick said yesterday.

His remarks prompted leaders of the Fund for Animals, a group leading the charge to save the goats, to call for a permanent moratorium on the shooting plan.

"The time has come to take the lethal option off the table," the Fund's Roger Anunsen said.

Crawford, however, continued to express doubts about contraception. "There are still some monumental problems," he said. In the past, park officials have dismissed goat birth control as too expensive and dangerous, because vaccines must be administered annually in darts fired from helicopters near perilous mountain peaks.

But Kirkpatrick said a new type of the vaccine, already being tested, lasts three years rather than one, greatly reducing treatment costs and risks. That type will be available within a year, he said.

And Olympic rangers involved in the park's previous trapping and aerial removal program have said the true danger came in airlifting tranquilized goats from the mountains - not from maneuvering to dart them. Indeed, the park's shooting plan was to be conducted from helicopters.

Kirkpatrick said he wrote the park because Olympic officials repeatedly took his study panel's conclusions out of context, suggesting that contraception to control goats was not a viable alternative to shooting.

That wasn't true then, and it's even less true now, Kirkpatrick said.

"The amount of progress we have made in 18 months is just short of staggering," he said.

Kirkpatrick, a former national park service employee who has studied animal fertility for 21 years, said the park's apparent insistence on shooting goats is an example of selective application of park policies calling for extermination of exotic, or introduced, species.

"Elimination to me seems to be too strong a response," he said. "You don't see national parks trying to kill English sparrows or starlings that have wandered in. It's a matter of, what can you pick on?"

Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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