Glacier National Park officials have halted a wildlife research project after two mountain goats died this week during efforts to tranquilize them. The two deaths occurred during separate darting attempts by University of Montana researchers, the park reported Friday.
Field necropsies showed that one mountain goat died as a result of respiratory arrest after the tranquilizer dart penetrated the animal's ribcage, while the second analysis was inconclusive.
A 6-year-old male died Tuesday after being darted by Wildlife Conservation Society veterinarian Dr. Robert Moore in the Many Glacier Valley, park officials said. 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," reported Dr. Joel Berger, the John J. Craighead Chair and Professor of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Montana Division of Biological Sciences.
After meeting with park managers on Wednesday, researchers were allowed to resume their field work; however, a second mortality occurred Thursday when another male goat was darted, the park reported. Thursday evening, the researchers were instructed to "stand down" until further notice, while the NPS conducts a review.
“We are devastated at the loss of these animals," said Dr. Berger.
Though long seen as icons of Glacier National Park, relatively little is known about the animals and how they might react to a changing climate, park officials said. University of Montana researchers had been hoping to come to better understand how mountain goats might react to warming temperatures through these studies. Specifically, according to park officials, the researchers were hoping to answer the question of whether Glacier National Park will become a refuge for mountain goats.
Dr. Berger is overseeing the field study being conducted by UofM doctoral candidate Stefan Ekernas. Researchers, looking to gather baseline to help monitor mountain goat responses to warming temperatures and changing weather patterns, 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 also were to be given 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.
Dr. Berger has 25 years of field experience conducting research on large mammals including musk oxen, saiga antelope, moose, rhinos and pronghorn antelope, according to a park release. This experience includes handling and/or dating 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 under changing climate, cannot be ascertained without field research, the park said.
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.
“Climate has been and continues to be a clear driver in shaping and modifying the boundaries of species distributions," said Dr. Berger. "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.”
There was no indication when the Park Service would allow the field work to resume.