Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Camping Field Guide - Mountain Goats: are they good or bad?

One of the animals you're likely to see if you spend any time in the Wasatch Mountains are mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus). Their conspicuous white coats and relatively tame dispositions make them highly visible, especially in the heavily traveled Wasatch Range. They're most comfortable clamoring across rocks, where their soft-hoofed feet give them uncanny agility. Steep terrain provides protection from predators and is the most likely place to spot them.

Mountain goats can be easily recognized by their thick white coats that keep them warm in extremely cold temperatures. They actually grow a double coat, with thick, course outer hairs reaching up to eight inches in length, insulated by a 2-3 inch thick fine wool under-layer. Each spring mountain goats molt or shed this thick coat (notice the partially molted coat above). If you're in an area with goat activity, check on the bushes and shrubs and you'll likely find their fur. By mid-July they've completed this process and begin growing their new coat for the coming winter. These coats allow them to live above timberline even during winter. Though when snow covers their food, I've seen them as low as Storm Mountain in Big Cottonwood Canyon.

Another defining characteristic of mountain goats are their dark horns. Both male and female goats grow horns. The horns range between 6-11 inches in length and have yearly growth rings (see the rings on the right horn). These horns look very different than the large spiraling horns of bighorn sheep and are an easy way to tell the two species apart.

Mountain goats have very confrontational personalities. (Watch the video below) Female goats, known as nannies, can be particularly nasty to each other. They are highly competitive, territorial, and protective of their personal space. Fights occur over the best grazing resources, salt licks, and resting spots. Generally a hierarchy based on size and age is followed.

But goats don't limit their aggressive behavior towards their own species. In Washington's Cascade Range where salt is a precious resource, goats have become accustomed to associating people with salt. They'll wait for you to pee and then lap up the salt off the rocks. In both the Enchantment Lake Basin near Leavenworth and on Liberty Bell in the North Cascades, I've had goats mock-charge me while I was still peeing to get at my salt. I've even arrived at the top of a multi-pitch rock climb and had goats waiting for me.

Mountain goats are herbivores and eat a varied diet of grasses, sedges, herbs, leaves, mosses, and lichen. In other words, almost anything.

As with many mountain ranges in the Western United States, mountain goats are not native to the Wasatch Mountains. They were transplanted here by people. There is some debate as to whether their introduction is good for the sustainability of the Wasatch ecosystem. Like other exotic (non-native) species, mountain goats have multiplied quickly and their undiscerning grazing habits have had a negative impact on fragile alpine plants. A lack of natural predators has allowed populations to expand, increasing the pressure on high altitude vegetation.

Below timberline mountain goat's natural predators include wolves, lynx, cougars, eagles, and grizzly bears. Above timberline the only real predatory threat is from golden eagles during the birthing season. The Wasatch Mountains never had, or no longer has wolves, lynx, or grizzly bears. A very dense population of mountain goats is living on Mt. Timpanogos, in the southern part of the Wasatch Mountains.

To better understand the issue of introducing mountain goats consider the case of Washington State's Olympic National Park as described on Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo website:

"There is a continuing debate over the mountain goat population in the Olympic National Park. In the 1920's, a hunting club worked with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife and the US Forest Service to introduce these non-native animals to this area. The 15 mountain goats transplanted in 1920 multiplied to over 500 by 1977, and more than 1,000 by 1983. Since they eat most plants and create wallow for dust baths and trails, there is concern over damage to extremely fragile alpine ecosystems and rare native plants. After years of debate and dozens of hearings, a plan was introduced to solve the problem. Since the 1980's, over 400 goats have been removed and transported outside the region to the Cascades and to other states. In the 1980's Woodland Park Zoo veterinarian Dr. Jim Foster headed a birth control program of birth control implants and male sterilization for mountain goats in Olympic National Park. This issue is still heated and not resolved. "

How do you feel about having mountain goats in the Wasatch? Do you like seeing them in the high country? Or would you rather have intact plant communities? Is there some way to have both? I'd like to here what people think. Please weigh in the comments.

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