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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

July 26, 2011 at 2:22 PM

Close encounters: Mountain goats on the trail

It’s hard to match the thrill of encountering Oreamus Americanus on the trail: gleaming white, perfectly adapted to their kingdom in the clouds, mountain goats are in a realm all their own.

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This mountain goat delighted hikers on a the trail Saturday… but why was he there by the trail? And seemingly so comfortable with people? Biologists think they know.

Tori Allen, photo

Turns out close encounters with mountain goats have increased over the past 10 years, says Don Youkey, a district wildlife biologist for the U.S. Forest Service Wenatchee River Ranger District in the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forests. The reason, he says, is two fold: in areas where the animals have been protected from hunting that are also heavily traveled by hikers, the goats have come to have no negative associations with people — and positive associations with enjoying the salts of our sweat and urine.

In The Enchantments, they have become veritable pests, chewing on the straps of backpacks left on the ground, and used T-shirts. And goats have been gaining the habit of hanging around trails, where people have urinated.

There’s something unsettling about a wild animal that doesn’t run away from you. I encountered the same goat Tori photographed and was so rattled as it walked closer and closer to me that I dropped my husband’s camera and broke it. So here’s another of her shots:

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It’s not the big, late, lingering snow pack that is crowding goats lower and putting them in hikers’ paths, but rather, goats hanging around people and the trails they use. It’s up to us to get out of their way. Keep at least 50 to 100 yards from goats both for your safety and theirs, so they don’t become more habituated to people than they already are, biologists advise

Tori Allen, photo

This goat came so close, I could hear it breathe. A young male about two and a half years old, it walked to me until I turned and walked away to give it space. I don’t know how close it would have come if I didn’t leave its steady onward pace toward me from about 10 feet away. It wasn’t aggressive, it was just… coming right on over. But that seemed so odd, I side-stepped away and watched from a distance.

And what a pleasure, to watch it snack on snow.

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The goat ate snow to quench its thirst. It was so hot Saturday I could see his whole body move as he panted. After taking a few bites he lay in the snow for a nice cool down.

Douglas MacDonald, photo (before he handed me the camera and I dropped it.)

Of course, everyone has heard of the hiker killed by a goat in the Olympic National Park last fall, so that was another good reason to give it wide berth. But he was just a calm, friendly goat, munching on alpine plants, and strolling about. What a life, up there in the angel’s redoubt of mountain peaks in every direction. Youkey supposed he was off on a ramble apart from the bachelor’s band of male goats probably not far off that he hangs with.

“Goats are fairly social animals, and will stay in extended family groups for several years, then when older the males will wander off and form their own ‘bachelor’ groups,” Youkey wrote me in an email. “At 2+ years, males could go either way, and some likely go back and forth for a while from mom to their teenage buddies. But they move around some, and don’t stay in tight groups all the time.”

I asked him why this goat was alone, and he answered that actually, he probably wasn’t. I just couldn’t see his friends.

“My guess is there’s other goats not too far away,” Youkey said. “Or this one is wandering around a bit, and will likely join up with another group within a few days. The older dominant males are most likely to be solitary, but even then usually occur in pairs or threes. The breeding season is in the late fall, November and into December, and males can travel long distances during this time ”

Some individual goats will cover as many as 20 miles in a day, said Cliff Rice of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. In a multi-year study with other project partners, the agency collared goats with GPS devices to track their movements and learn more about the goat population in Washington.

They estimate the mountain goat population at 2,815, and determined that goats in some areas have been badly depleted by overhunting to as little as ten percent of their population decades ago. The department has changed is regulations, reducing hunting to allow goats to rebound, said Dave Ware, game division manager for the WDFW. The department may also relocate goats from the Olympics, where they are not native, to places where populations have been depleted.

That idea is still under discussion — but it’s been done with elk, with success. Meanwhile, the thing to do is leave goats like this alone — and weird as it sounds, pee far from the trail to keep goats from coming in close range of where people have been. I know, I didn’t believe this advice either when the National Park Service put it out in a news release a few weeks ago. But seeing goats walk right up to you is believing.

Ken Raedecke, affiliate faculty with the University of Washington, makes some points, so to speak, as to why it makes sense to keep your distance. He remembers doing goat research in the Olympics and a goat slicing through the wool of his shirt with a toss of its horns. “Wool is not easy to cut. Those horns are very sharp,” he noted. The horns are used by males to fight for mates. Both male and female goats have them, but the males’ horns are bigger.

As I watched the goat it for no reason apparent to me clamored suddenly acoss the bare rocky terrain to peer over the ridge. It was amazing to see how easily it moved over such uneven ground. That is because of its feet, with toes that can spread for traction and a bottom surface made to grip.

To learn more about mountain goats, read my story in the Seattle Times. There is also Douglas H. Chadwick’s book to enjoy, A Beast the Color of Winter.

Also check the WDFW’s website for information on mountain goats, including places to hike where you are most likely to see them. As for the goat I saw Saturday, it’s too easy to find him for me to say where he is.. .what he doesn’t need is a hoard of human fans trekking up to visit.

And who knows: he may have already moved on, to cruise with his bachelor band, now that the weekend hikers are gone.

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Odd to think goats may be watching for us, just as much as we are watching for them.

Douglas MacDonald photo

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