By :: Ethan Demi
This past August I distinctly remember a specific moment sipping my coffee looking across the Puget Sound from the front of a ferry that 5 other volunteers and I had boarded with two refrigerated trucks full of mountain goats. Two thoughts entered my head. The first being that this was undoubtedly the most peculiar moment of my life, the second being, "how in the world did I get here?"
So let's rewind and map out exactly how wound up on a ferry 2,850 miles from home with a truck full of mountain goats. Earlier in the year, I was home in Pennsylvania in my kitchen making dinner listening to the Meateater Podcast, which is a fairly common occurrence. This particular episode was episode 36 with Jeff Sposito and Pete Muennich. They discussed two different organizations. 2% For Conservation and the Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance, both of which were new to me. For anyone who isn't familiar with 2% For Conservation I encourage you to research them, but in short they are an organization that certifies both individuals and businesses as 2% members. Meaning that they donate at least 1% of their time and 1% of their income annually back to conservation. This really caught my attention as I had recently started a guide service where we guide bowfishing and waterfowl on primarily public waters, and I felt an increasing conviction to give back and pull my weight. I immediately started the process of getting my guide service 2% certified. The Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance also caught my attention as Pete spoke about how many volunteer opportunities existed inside of the Goat Alliance to get boots on the ground and get your hands dirty. This was exactly the type organization I had been looking to get involved with. Admittedly, I had been frustrated with the lack of volunteer opportunities with some of the other organizations I am a member of. When asked how to get involved they simply just respond with going to local banquets and throwing money around, while that is extremely important and I also do that, I was looking for a chance to get a little more involved.
Fast forward a couple months I was 2% certified, a Goat Alliance member, and had made the jump to trying to guide and work in the outdoors full time. One evening I learned of a volunteer opportunity relocating mountain goats in Washington state by seeing a post by 2%, I immediately inquired. 2% and the Goat Alliance got me set up with the state biologist heading up the project. This project involved trapping the goats out of Olympic National Park for a few reasons. One being that they are non native to the park and apparently the dense population there is having a negative effect on grazing land and native vegetation, the other being that conflicts and contact with people inside the park were arising. Upon removing them from the park they would take them to the Cascades to be released where they are native and the population numbers are low. Now, I'm summarizing the project, but encourage you to look more into it for yourself and potentially look for volunteer opportunities of your own.
After completing and returning all of the paperwork, I was on the schedule and booked my airfare. An added bonus of this trip was that last year my best friend Steve had moved to the area where the project was taking place and not only did it give me a chance to visit him, but also was able to get him on the volunteer schedule with me. Upon arriving at the meeting area we received instruction, got the run down on the refrigerated trucks, and made the drive up into the park. Being able to catch up with Steve during the scenic drive up into the mountains was worth the trip alone. We arrived at the pick up location eager to see what the day entailed for us. There we were met by National Park workers, state biologists, and Fish and Wildlife workers. After waiting for about 30 minutes and receiving instruction on exactly what and what not to do we got word that the goats were on their way to us. The goats were captured by darting them out of a helicopter and then carefully handled by biologists. They put horn protectors on them, blindfolded them, bound their feet, along with other precautions to ensure that they wouldn't hurt themselves or anyone else. They then loaded them in a truck and brought them down to us. They careful unloaded them, weighed them, and then put them on tables for the veterinarians to asses them, administer vaccinations, check vital signs, and put GPS tracking collars on them for research purposes.
During this time the park service was very receptive to us. They easily could've told us to stand over there and stay out of the way, but instead they acknowledged this a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to work up close with these fascinating animals. They showed us where we could stand up close without being in the way and allowed us to watch, take pictures, and truly tried to involve us as much as they could. They were great. After all of this was done we loaded them into ventilated crates and loaded them into the refrigerated trucks where we made sure they were securely strapped in place. We then had about a six hour drive to the release site, stopping on the hour to open the back of the truck and let fresh air circulate for a few minutes. We arrived at the release site in the Cascades around midnight. We camped out there for the night. Inconveniently my local asset (Steve) forgot the tent so I proceeded to get, hands down, the worst night of sleep I'd ever experienced. Trying to sleep in the cab of this extremely uncomfortable truck while the goats made noise, kicked, and rocked the truck all night was less than desirable. The next morning we were met by the release crew at 6:00. They brought the helicopter in, lowered cables and hooked the crates to them and air lifted the goats up higher into the mountains to be released.
Just like that our shift was over, seven goats had been relocated, and we were driving back the the original meeting place to return the trucks. I don't know if it was the pace of our shift, the rarity being able to be involved in a project like this, or just simply the cliche' of how good times fly, but our experience the last 24 hours felt surreal. This is the first interaction I've had with these incredible animals and now I'm very intrigued by them. I remember every time we stopped to open the door on the back of the truck to circulate fresh air, there was one billy in the very back that was always calmly staring at me with those golden eyes when I cracked the door. I've been up close to a lot of wildlife before, but it's never felt like being eye to eye with this billy did. It just felt like I was looking something so overwhelmingly wild in the eye. These animals live in the wildest of all places. Places that are more rugged and removed from civilization than anywhere. Yet, somehow this billy and some whitetail hunter all the way from Pennsylvania found each other eye to eye with the other on a ferry on the Puget Sound. Life is crazy.
I will always remember those golden eyes looking back at me as I apply every year for the privilege to hunt these fascinating animals. I may never hunt them, and I certainly will never hunt the population that I worked with in Washington. It may sound odd to those who don't hunt for us to say that we love these animals, but apply for years for a chance to hunt them and I get that. However, the relationship between hunters and the animals we hunt is very hard to capture without stepping out into the wild and experiencing it first hand. As hunters we are the ones on the front lines volunteering and putting in the work for conservation and it's primarily our dollars funding conservation. All of us as hunters contribute to conservation when we buy hunting licenses and apply for points, but I challenge you to take it a step farther and get your hands dirty. Sometimes conservation is picking up trash, sometimes it's banding waterfowl, and on rare occasion it may be flying across the country to haul mountain goats with your best buddy. Whatever it looks like for you, step into the arena of conservation and earn your seat at the table. You wont regret it.