Mountain goats have gotten a bad rap in recent years.
A mountain goat gored a person to death in the Olympic National Park in 2010. That fatal confrontation — along with damage done to the fragile mountain ecosystem by the growing number of non-native mountain goats — has brought the situation on the Olympic Peninsula to a head as officials have introduced a multiple-option plan intended to reduce that population through trapping and possibly hunting.
But mountain goats also lead a hard scrabble existence in the alpine areas of southwest Washington, including the Goat Rocks Wilderness and Mount St. Helens. However, unlike the mountain goats of the Olympic Peninsula, which were originally brought in during the 1920s as part of a species introduction effort that has run wild, the mountain goats of southwest Washington are native to the area.
The southern Cascades represent the southernmost extent of the animals’ historical range. That range extends through British Columbia to Alaska, where most of the species’ prime habitat, and population, can be found.
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Mountain goats are unique to North America. DNA testing has revealed that the mountain goats of today do not differ much from their ancestors, and they are the only member of their genus on the continent. Not a true member of the caprinae family like a common goat, mountain goats are more closely related to the obscure animals of Europe and Asia known as the chamois (sounds like shammy) goral and serow.
Where the mountain goats of the Cascade range rarely strayed from their highland homes, human relocation efforts over the past century and a half have established viable populations in Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.
In Washington state, it is believed that there are somewhere around 3,000 mountain goats today, down from what is believed was once 9,000 animals.
In southwest Washington, mountain goats have established permanent populations at the Goat Rocks Wilderness near White Pass, Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens. Goat Rocks and Mount St. Helens, where regular population studies are conducted, are each believed to have about 250 resident mountain goats. Mount Adams, which is unmonitored, is believed to be home to somewhere between 100 and 200 native mountain goats.
“There’s other places kind of peppered throughout the south Cascades where there’s going to be smaller populations of them,” added Eric Holman, district wildlife biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They can turn up in ones and twos in some surprising places that you wouldn’t necessarily expect them to be.”
Holman said a mountain goat was even reported standing at the shore of Merrill Lake, southwest of Mount St. Helens, this summer by a tourist.
The diet of a mountain goat will vary greatly throughout the year, as seasonal conditions dictate what nutrition is available.
“They have a really broad range. They are very adaptable and really durable. If it is even close to green they are going to eat it,” said Holman, who noted the goats will follow the snowline up the mountain in the spring to eat the fresh green chutes of vegetation that emerge from the grip of winter.
But during hard times, mountain goats can subsist on the brittle sustenance of moss and lichen. That taxing boom and bust cycle is natural for mountain goats that are uniquely adapted to survive in the harsh conditions of the high country.
“They lose a lot of condition in the winter. They are very much built to gain weight in the spring and summer and then lose it again as they head into fall and winter,” said Holman.
While winter works to naturally thin the numbers of mountain goats, Holman said last winter was particularly rough for wildlife because it was so cold and the snowpack crept into the lowlands. Holman noted that those conditions may have contributed to a slight dip in population at Goat Rocks this year.
The average lifespan of an adult mountain goat is somewhere between 10 and 12 years, but Holman said fewer than 50 percent of mountain goat offspring make it past 1 year old. “For the kids, an awful lot of them die. It speaks to kind of the harshness of the environment that they are living in,” he said.
Where female elk and deer are typically sexually mature by the time they are about 2 years old, a nanny mountain goat is not able to reproduce until she reaches 4. That slow development keeps population numbers in check too.
While mountain goats are infamously fond of the high country, they do migrate with the season. Of course, they follow the greenery in order to find food, but weather conditions also play a part in their wandering. When the lowlands become overcrowded during the peak of winter with so many critters seeking refuge, the mountain goats turn convention on its head and set out for the steepest peaks they can find to ride out the storms in stoic solitude.
“The goats will just stay there and find a spot in a system of cliffs where the snow can’t accumulate and they will just persist there,” said Holman, who noted that mountain goats prefer the wide open spaces above the treeline where they can more easily escape predators. “That’s their niche that they occupy.”
The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens wiped out a small resident population of about 15 mountain goats, but in the years since the eruption, mountain goats have been moving back. There have been no reintroduction efforts at the volcano since the eruption, but mountain goats from other areas continue to show up to the recovering landscape.
Holman said the moonscaped blast zone of Mount St. Helens has created a unique lowland habitat at just 2,000 feet that is favored by the goats. Evidence of mountain goats inside the eruption crater was first observed in 2000, and since then goats have been spotted inside the crater with regularity. Staff can even point them out from the Johnston Ridge Observatory when conditions are right.
Holman said there have not been any reported run-ins between the animals and people in the southern Cascades.
“We haven’t had those sorts of conflicts in the Goat Rocks or Mount St. Helens yet, but they’re not necessarily all that afraid of people, especially during the breeding season,” Holman said. “People should be aware not to get in super close to try to get a cool picture or something. They can obviously be dangerous, or even fatal. Most of the time wildlife will run away, but sometimes they don’t.”
In the Olympic Mountains, on the other hand, hikers regularly encounter mountain goats along popular trails. Holman hypothesized that in addition to overcrowding and the sheer number of visitors hitting those popular trails, there may be some sort of nutrient deficiency in the diet of Olympic Peninsula goats that has lead them to follow the hiking trails in search of two surprising substances: urine and sweat. Scientists have noted that hikers’ sweat and urine becomes crystallized along trails, creating a winding salt lick of sorts for the mountain goats.
Hunting and gathering
Hunting mountain goats is allowed by permit only in Washington. The 27 permits allotted for the state are distributed by a lottery drawing. One tag is also auctioned off, and another is raffled. Several Native American tribes, such as the Puyallup and Muckleshoot, hold mountain goat hunting rights as well.
At Goat Rocks, authorities have issued five permits per season in recent years, and hunting success rates there are among the highest in the state. In 2016, all five hunters with tags took a mountain goat from Goat Rocks.
“The seasons are designed that way to make this a very quality hunting experience for those that are lucky enough to draw,” he said.
Those mountain goat hunts began in September when archers were allowed to head into the high country from Sept. 1-14. Beginning Sept. 15 and lasting through Nov. 30, permitted hunters are allowed to pursue mountain goats with any legal weapon they choose, including muzzleloaders and modern rifles.
Holmans says local populations are doing so well that there is a possibility of reopening Mount St. Helens to hunting in the future.
“It’s pretty exciting that the goats on St. Helens are doing so good,” Holman said.
In addition to hunting mountain goats, Native American tribes also have started to use the fiber of mountain goats in ways that their ancestors did before European settlers arrived in the Pacific Northwest. Holman said that although the Cowlitz Indian Tribe does not hold any hunting treaty rights, they have recently revived the tradition of gathering shed wool from around Mount St. Helens.
“Their people historically used the goats and hunted them and ate them and gathered their wool,” Holman said.
Historically, the Cowlitz Tribe was known for curating prize blankets and yarn spun from the thick double wool coat of area mountain goats. Those fibers insulate the goats against temperatures as low as negative 50 degrees and winds as high as 100 mph. The woven and spun goods of the Cowlitz Tribe were in great demand, and were traded to tribes as far away as Canada.
Olympic mountain goat proposal
A plan to decrease, or even eliminate, the number of mountain goats in the Olympic National Park is under review by wildlife authorities and land managers. Those non-native goats have swelled to a population of more than 600 animals with an projected increase of about 45 percent over the next five years.
In addition to the danger posed to hikers encountering mountain goats, authorities say the ballooning population is overtaxing important flora and harming entire ecosystems.
One proposal included in the plan would use helicopters to tranquilize and collect goats to transplant them to other parts of the state. Holman said that none of those goats would be destined for the south Cascades, although goats were previously moved from the Olympic Peninsula to Mount St. Helens during a doomed repopulation effort in the mid-1970s.
A press release notes that any mountain goats transplanted from the Olympic Peninsula would be released in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie and Okanogan Wenatchee National Forests.
A detailed copy of the Olympic Peninsula proposal is available for review online at the National Park Service website. The open comment period ended on Oct. 10 with more than 600 pieces of correspondence received by the state. Additional information on mountain goats can be found on the Fish & Wildlife website.