JACKSON — Dozens of salt-loving mountain goats are coming down from the slopes of western Wyoming to lick up the salt-and-sand mixture that snowplows spread over a highway, leading to collisions with vehicles traversing the icy canyon roadway.
At least three goats were hit and killed by motorists over a five-day span in October and November near the tip of the Snake River Canyon south of Jackson and near the Idaho state line, Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife biologist Gary Fralick told the Jackson Hole News & Guide.
The actual number of goats killed each year along U.S. Highways 26 and 89 could be a lot higher, he said.
“When you’re losing anywhere from three to 15 goats a year potentially, that’s fairly substantial,” Fralick said. “I think 15 goats could be getting struck (annually) and not known about.”
The mountain goats, which are not native to the area, appeared to learn in 2012 about the mineral-rich salt that’s spread over the roadway in winter to make driving safer, officials said.
They tend to gather at the start of winter and again in the spring, when the first grasses appear at the roadside.
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There have been fewer crashes in December since Fralick and Wyoming Highway Patrol officials started driving the animals off the highway, he said.
Photographer Jason Mihalick said the goats gather regularly in the mornings. He was shooting photos this month when a trooper approached him.
“He was like, ‘Get your shots, because I’m going to run them up the hill,’” Mihalick said.
The animals then bolted when the trooper revved his engine near the herd.
Officials are considering solutions that include leaving salt blocks on the hillside to keep the goats from seeking out highway salt. But Fralick said he’s reluctant to take that step because it might lead to increased disease transmission among the animals that gather there.
Fralick said he would like to see warning signs to slow drivers as they go through the area, but transportation officials say all the signs they have are being used.
The salt-and-sand mixture left by the snowplows is necessary, Department of Transportation foreman Bruce Daigle said.
“It’s a shame, but we’ve got to be able to do our job, too, unfortunately,” Daigle said. “We don’t like having to pick up dead animals, either.”