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RMGA Comments On Glacier National Park Air Tour Management Plan

October 3, 2021

In 2021, Glacier National Park (GNP) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed an Air Tour Management Plan. RMGA provided comments on this proposal and will continue to stay engaged to ensure potential impacts to mountain goats are scientifically based.

By Lee MacDonald 

In an effort to delineate acceptable levels of commercial air tours, including, but not limited to, frequency, duration, altitude, and routes, Glacier National Park (GNP) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently proposed an Air Tour Management Plan.  Behavioral changes in mountain goats and other mountain ungulates due to aerial disturbance have been documented since the 1970s.  RMGA recently provided comments on this proposal and will continue to stay engaged to ensure potential impacts to mountain goats are scientifically based. The full comments are below:

"The Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance (RMGA) is a respected voice for science-based expertise related to mountain goat conservation, with active involvement in the science and management of mountain goat populations across their range. The RMGA supports the Air Tour Management Plan (ATMP) proposed by Glacier National Park and the FAA and recognizes that helicopter supported adventure tourism is an increasingly diverse and growing industry that requires guidance to ensure that its operations do not result in adverse outcomes to wildlife or harm to the environment. The following recommendations are based on the 2020 Position Statement from the Northern Wild Sheep and Goat Council regarding Commercial and Recreational Disturbance of Mountain Goats: Recommendations for Management. The Position Statemen cites over 90 science and evidence-based publications dating back to the 1970’s, that identify both behavioral and physiological impacts to mountain goats from motorized aerial and non-aerial disturbances. Some of the most significant impacts associated with these types of anthropogenic disturbances include: alienation of important seasonal habitats; abandonment of high value home range areas; and negative impacts to population resilience, individual fitness and survival, leading to population declines.

Following review of the ATMP, our recommendations include:

1. Extending the horizontal setback identified in the ATMP from the proposed 2,600ft to a minimum of 5,000ft (1.5km is recommended by the Council’s Position Statement) and implementing a minimum 1,700ft, or 500m, vertical separation setback for ‘Light’ helicopters (Medium and Heavy helicopters would require greater horizontal and vertical setback distances) may offer a science-supported level of compromise to commercial operators while still creating a level of protections from disturbance for mountain goats, other species of wildlife sensitive to aerial disturbance, and their habitats.

2. Commercial or recreational disturbance activity that includes the use of ‘Light’ helicopters, should not occur within a horizontal distance of 5,000ft - 6,500ft (1.5 – 2.0km) of winter and kidding habitats or mineral licks; where variation to this minimum setback is required in consideration of local flight transects, terrain features or emergency and human safety considerations, additional mitigations should be built into the operator’s tenure plan to address this.

3. Disturbance activity should not occur on or near mountain goat winter range habitats between November 1–April 30.

4. Disturbance activity should not occur on or near mountain goat kidding or natal habitats between May 1–July 15.

5. Disturbance activity should not occur at mineral licks used by mountain goats during peak use periods generally occurring between May 1–August 31, recognizing that local variation in periods of use can span a different period of time.

6. To promote compliance with the ATMP, helicopter supported adventure tourism operators should be required to collect and submit real-time global positioning system flight and location data twice annually for all flights, for both winter and non-winter activities. This will enable the continued development and improvement of site-specific mitigation strategies and facilitate performance-based, adaptive management outcomes that protect wildlife values (refer to: Developing a Spatial Tool to Enable Monitoring of Aircraft Flights and Compliance with Avoidance Strategies for Helicopter Skiing Operations in the Skeena Region). This approach is used in British Columbia and has been shown to be an effective way to identify when variations from approved tenure operational plans occur, and in facilitating opportunities to incorporate adaptive strategies that improve operator compliance as well as wildlife protection and conservation stewardship outcomes. For more information on the British Columbia delivery approach, contact the Habitat Manager for the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.

7. In support of wildlife monitoring, tourism operators should contribute to the costs of regular wildlife inventories, with this information being used to monitor mountain goat population trend and compositions, and in support of recommendations 3-5 presented above. These surveys also support effectiveness monitoring associated with the horizontal and vertical setbacks and establish flight transects and routes, and mitigation measures implemented in the operator’s plan focused on maintaining mountain goat occupation and use of existing habitats. This could be accomplished through a royalty or surcharge contribution to a special fund, also supported by the National Park system, and demonstrates support to social license considerations relevant to commercial, conservation, indigenous and public organizations."

Photo Credit: Darryn Epp Photography

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