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Kensington mountain goat herds dying off

Study: 45 percent decrease most likely due to harsh winters

Posted: January 3, 2014 - 1:06am

An Alaska Department of Fish and Game study has found that mountain goat populations at the Kensington Gold Mine dropped 45 percent between 2006 and 2011.

The decline is most likely related to harsh winters, ADF&G wildlife biologist Kevin White said, although the department has yet to conduct a comprehensive analysis. The site’s goat numbers for 2012 and 2013 have yet to be finalized, he said.

The department has been performing the study since 2005 in partnership with Coeur Alaska, which operates the mine and funds the research, White said. Coeur Alaska has funded the project at about $40,000 for the past two years, and will continue to do so through 2015, company spokesperson Jan Trigg said.

The mine is required by the U.S. Forest Service to conduct and fund environmental impact studies to make sure development is not negatively affecting surrounding wildlife, ADF&G habitat biologist Kate Kanouse said.

Kanouse leads fish-related environmental studies at the mine, testing and tracking the composition of algae, marine insects and fish in Slate Creek and Sherman Creek to make sure the habitat remains healthy. For the past two years, ADF&G has had a contract with Coeur Alaska to monitor the mine’s nearby water and fish, a project that was funded by the company at about a quarter of a million dollars this year, Kanouse said.

As far as the mine’s land animals go, “mountain goats qualified as the top one for terrestrial wildlife,” White said. White and other scientists have studied the goats closely, outfitting them with GPS-enabled collars and monitoring their habitat selection and migration patterns. The team determines population size, the proportion of goats that die and the females’ estimated reproductive rate.

Along Lynn Canal, where ADF&G began monitoring goats years ago in preparation for the former Juneau Access Project, White has found the same thing — mountain goats are dying off. The entire eastern Lynn Canal population dropped from about 1,130 goats in 2006 to about 600 in 2010, White said. This consistency suggests the Kensington Mine goats’ struggles are probably related to weather, rather than development, White said.  “Three particularly severe winters” have occurred since the study began, he said, “including the biggest winter on record since records were kept — the winter of 2006 and 2007.” The influence of development has not been thoroughly examined yet, he said.

A control area near the mine has experienced a similar decline in mountain goat population in the same time period, White said.

“Winter severity is important to mountain goat survival,” he said. “We also documented a comparable level of decline of the moose population over the same time. The decline is probably mostly related to severe winters rather than the acute effect of the mine. We can’t rule out that there aren’t additive effects of the mine.”

White said the department will continue to study the goats to determine exactly why their numbers are dropping. Trigg said Coeur Alaska will support goat monitoring at the mine through 2015.

“There is scientific evidence that mountain goats are sensitive to industrial development,” White said. “We want to understand the extend of those effects.”

For more information on the goat study, visit www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=goatresearch.main.

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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