Mount Eagle, the highest peak on St. Croix, is one of the most beautiful hikes on the island. This rugged terrain of a mountain crest extends to 1,165 feet above sea level to Blue Mountain, where it reaches 1,090 feet. Historically, Mount Eagle was one of the sites that periodically sheltered runaway enslaved Africans, known as Maroons, from the surrounding plantations. The easier path to hike Mount Eagle is on the ridge — known as the saddle — which takes you up the mountain, above the deep valley’s ridge of the trail.
The trail is beautiful with a secondary tropical forest leading into a foot path that takes you to the summit. From there, you can see the northern Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Buck Island, Christiansted and St. Croix’s East End. You can also see the surrounding estates, which include Cane Bay, La Valley, Rust Up Twist, Canaan, North Star and others.
In 1895, Botanist Edmund Alfred Ricksecker, born in West Salem, Illinois (1869-1943), set out on foot to explore Mount Eagle. It was 125 years ago when Ricksecker explored Mount Eagle from the north side of the mountain. He described his adventure this way:
“In places the soil was shallow and great broken rocks and dense growths made progress difficult. Large patches of Guinea grass were noted extending almost to the summit. The view from the top is one of unsurpassed beauty and commands the whole island. The forest of the mountain was quite dense in places, while its north side was so precipitous that it seemed to be almost sheer to the ocean.”
Today, Mount Eagle’s vegetation has changed drastically due to human impact for hundreds of years on the forest ecology. However, the forest still contains interesting plant species and wildlife, especially the rare Bridled Quail Dove (Geotrygon Mystacea) that almost went extinct in the mid-1800s.
Today, there is a new threat to Mount Eagle. It was two months after hurricanes Irma and Maria impacted the Virgin Islands that I decided to hike the mountain. It was an early cool morning, with my backpack on my back and boots on my feet, as I hiked and took in the fresh air blowing from the northwest and east up Mount Eagle mountain’s northeast ridge.
I can still hear the crickets making their chirping song and see the dew evaporating off the foliage of the trees and grasses with the sun about to burst through the eastern sky. As I looked down on the carpet-like forest floor, wet from the night dew, I saw droppings of some kind of animal on the path.
I tried to figure out what wild animal it could be. It was the first time that I saw so much of the droppings, which covered a long distance along the path of the trail.
At first, I thought it was deer droppings, but as the wind blew, I realized it came from goats. If you have ever been around goats, they have a distinctive and unusual smell. If your grandmother ever told you “boy go to bath” because you smell like a “ram goat,” you knew exactly what she was talking about.
Without a doubt, these goats probably got away from a farmer and escaped into the wild after hurricanes Irma and Maria impacted St. Croix. It is almost two years now since the back-to-back storms wreaked havoc on the Virgin Islands; with this length of time, the goats in the Mount Eagle area have become feral.
Feral goats are very destructive to the biodiversity of our native animals and plant species. In fact, several threatened and endangered native plants in the Mount Eagle area had to be rescued by my colleagues at the University of the Virgin Islands because the goats were eating and pulling the plants out of the ground.
Many people don’t realize that feral goats can have a major impact on native vegetation. This occurs through soil damage and overgrazing of native grasses, shrubs, herbs and trees. As a result, overgrazing can cause soil erosion, which can create gullies and prevent regeneration of native plants.
From the colonial history of the Virgin Islands, feral goats and other domestic animals that went wild were always a major problem for humans and the environment. The same year Ricksecker visited St. Croix, which was in January 1895, he mentioned wild goats on the east end of St. Croix. He said the forest that once covered the hillside of the East End had disappeared. This was due to the growing of sugarcane and cotton. By the mid-1800s, most of the lands on the east end of St. Croix were abandoned. As nature takes it course, trees begin to spring up.
However, the wild goats injured the trees, turning the land mostly into bush, not forest.
The northwest, which is dear to my heart, is also being impacted by wild goats. This changing of the landscape by goats is on the historic ridge of Maroon Ridge where runaway enslaved Africans once were protected by dense forest, steep slopes, cliffs, rough sea and caves in the area. This is one of the few areas, or probably the only area, on St. Croix where you find a “virgin forest.” This, too, is impacted by wild goats. The northwest forest of St. Croix is sacred land because it was the last stronghold of Maroons fighting for freedom.
Throughout the Virgin Islands, including some of the offshore cays, goats are a major problem. If we are to maintain a healthy environment, domestic animals such as goats that have gone wild need to be captured. If we want to continue to promote these islands as a tourist destination, then we have to do a better job in protecting our natural, cultural, historical and marine resources of these islands. And, if you plan a hike Mount Eagle, you won’t regret it. You will fall in love with the mountain.
— Olasee Davis, St. Croix, is an ecologist at the University of the Virgin Islands. He is active in Virgin Islands historical, cultural and environmental preservation.