U of M mountain goat study halted after death of two animals in Glacier Park
University of Montana - Wildlife Conservation Society cooperative study
by National Park Service
June 11, 2010
WEST GLACIER, MONTANA – Glacier National Park officials report that a new University of Montana (UofM) study of mountain goats has been postponed pending an internal investigation into the cause of two deaths of adult mountain goats this week in separate darting and tranquilizing efforts. Field autopsies (necropsies) were performed by the field team on both animals. In the first capture cause of death was determined to be respiratory arrest due to the tranquilizer dart puncturing the animal’s ribcage. Cause of death is unknown in the second capture.
On Tuesday, June 8, during preliminary field work in the Many Glacier Valley, a six-year-old male mountain goat died after it was darted and tranquilized by Wildlife Conservation Society veterinarian Dr. Robert Moore. The darting occurred in the Ptarmigan Lake Trail area of Mt. Altyn. After being tranquilized, the animal went into respiratory arrest. Dr. Moore administered a tranquilizer antidote and provided support breathing for approximately 45 minutes according to Dr. Joel Berger, the John J. Craighead Chair and Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the UofM Division of Biological Sciences and Dr. Moore works for the Wildlife Conservation Society.
After meeting with park managers on Wednesday, June 9 researchers were allowed to resume their field work; however, a second mortality occurred Thursday, June 10 when another male goat was darted. Thursday evening, the researchers were instructed to "stand down," until further notice, while the NPS conducts a review. Berger stated, "We are devastated at the loss of these animals."
Much has been studied about the physical and visual changes occurring to glaciers remaining within Glacier National Park; however, much less is known about the potential impacts of climate change on park wildlife. In Glacier National Park, mountain goats are icons of peaks and wilderness skylines and they are likely a climate-sensitive species. Little is known about mountain goats including the extent to which changing habitats will affect this population. The question posed by this UofM study: Will Glacier National Park become a refuge for mountain goats?
Dr. Berger is overseeing the field study being conducted by UofM doctoral candidate Stefan Ekernas. Researchers planned to dart 30 mountain goats over the next two summers with a goal of collaring 15 this year and 15 next year. Mountain goats were to be fitted with radio collars as well as subcutaneous temperature monitors. Captures were to be conducted by a veterinarian with care taken to minimize activity in the vicinity of cliffs or open water, and excessively rough terrain. The study is planned to continue through 2013.
Berger has 25 years of field experience conducting research on large mammals including musk oxen, saiga antelope, moose, rhinos and pronghorn antelope. This experience includes handling and/or darting black rhinos, musk ox, pronghorn, saiga, moose, cheetahs, Grevy's zebras, feral horses, mule deer, bighorn sheep, coyotes, black bears, and kit fox.
Already scientists have learned that climate change is likely to squeeze the habitat available to park wildlife such as mountain goats since warming may be associated with rapid vegetation change at high altitudes. Understanding how (or if) mountain goats might adapt, and their likelihood of persistence cannot be ascertained without field research. Among the data needed to project persistence of goats is information about: 1) habitat and use, 2) population density, 3) demographic trends, 4) climate and weather, and 5) the extent and speed with which these factors are likely to change.
According to Berger, "Climate has been and continues to be a clear driver in shaping and modifying the boundaries of species distributions. Unlike organisms, the boundaries of national parks are fixed. Knowledge of the nature of change across both time and space offers key glimpses into a species’ biology, its potential ecological dynamics, and, perhaps, into conservation strategies." While climate models have been widely used to predict shifts in vegetation and animal communities, knowledge about species-specific adaptive mechanisms is rudimentary."
At a more local scale, less is known about the immediate susceptibility of populations to changing conditions or their demographic responses. There is surprisingly little data on how warming temperatures and changing weather affects distributional patterns of most species, their use of habitats at different elevations, and possible trade-offs between environments and access to food. This project initiates the collection of baseline data that can contribute to the larger question of long-term population persistence. It would concentrate on gaining an understanding of responses to changing temperature regimes and their likely demographic consequences. As a result, the three-year study would provide key data that is critical to the management of park resources.
The NPS will evaluate and consider future courses of action based on the review.