Conflicting Values in Environmental Ethics – The Mountain Goat Dilemma

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Area: Other Areas, Science
Grade Level: High School & Beyond, Middle School, Primary/Elementary School
Topics: Animal Rights, animals, Ecosystems, Ethics Environmental Ethics, Wildlife Management
Estimated Time Necessary: 60 minutes

Lesson Plan

To think together about issues in environmental ethics.
This lesson plan can raise a variety of questions about environmental ethics.
Weighing competing values in an environmental dilemma.
The lesson raises questions about competing values. In particular, how to balance the needs of varying members of the ecosystem.

Mountain goats are not native to Olympic National Park. They were introduced into Olympic Peninsula in the 1930s to encourage an increase of tourism via hunting. Shortly after, Olympic National Park was established. Under Park jurisdiction, hunting of any kind is forbidden, so the mountain goats placed there were protected. Olympic National Park is now 95% wilderness, which means, under the Wilderness Act of 1964, it has the highest level of protection that the federal government can give. Since the 1930s, the goats have thrived. Their birthrates have increased exponentially, eating the vegetation found in higher elevations. For many visitors to the park, seeing mountain goats on snowy peaks are the highlight of their experience at Olympic.

But for over two decades now, park biologists have observed huge impacts on the vegetation, both from the goats’ hooves and diet, as the goat’s population continues to sky-rocket. Flowers at high elevations in Olympic are quite fragile. Certain species, such as alpine heather, have no chance of recovery once they are trampled. Obviously, these plants are part of the greater ecosystem on which native species rely.

Moreover, goats require certain amounts of salt-concentrate and have a very hard time getting them in Olympic, which does not have natural salt deposits (unlike the Cascade Mountains, which do). They chew up dirt, further ruining topsoil, to attempt to get traces of salt. Still, this vitamin deficiency makes them grumpy and determined to find salt through anthropogenic sources, such as human sweat, urine, and food. Goats are often aggressive in tearing drying clothes off of tents, following humans as they wait for them to go to the bathroom, and entering campsites looking for salty snacks. Aggressive goat behavior has often been observed; hazing the goats by throwing rocks towards or even at them is sometimes the only way hikers have reportedly gotten them to leave.

The aggression hit a reckoning point in 2012, when a mountain goat gored a man to death with his horns. The hiker was trying to protect his family and was bluff-charging it (that is, to use rocks or sticks, which goes against park protocol). That death has had a resonating effect on the community around the park, with citizens demanding an explanation for why the park had not removed the goats sooner.

What should the park do?


  1. Warm-up (10 minutes): After reading the above with the class, divide students into groups for internal group conversations, each group coming up with their own lists of possible options.
  2. Present formal options, as follows (2 minutes):
  • Let the goats be
  • Sterilize the goats, letting them die out
  • Remove them via aircraft and place them in captivity or in another wilderness area
  • Let hunters come back in and shoot them for sport

III.        Assign one of the following roles to each group – while no role designates a certain stance or is binding, in order to have a variety of opinions, people should begin by arguing for a particular stance with these roles in mind (3 minutes):

  • Park botanists
  • Wildlife biologists
  • Hikers
  • Hunters
  1. Develop a stance (5 minutes): Collaboratively, each group should come to a consensus and issue a statement that clarifies what they believe is the most  correct course of action.
  2. Class conversation (25 minutes): People can split from their groups, change sides, present opposing views, etc.
  3. Conclusion (5 – 10 minutes): Take a vote on which option should be chosen, and then reveal what the park actually did (option 3).




This lesson plan was created for PLATO by: Claire Malarkey.