Have you ever gone rock climbing, hiked on the side of a mountain, or scaled a steep hill just for fun? What if you had to do that with hooves instead of your hands and feet?
Amazingly, there’s an animal that is not only able to do that, but is an expert at it. Mountain goats, related to antelopes, are the ultimate cliff climbers — and are perfectly suited for mountain life.
CLIFF DWELLERS: Mountain goats are found only in North America, ranging from Alaska to the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades. Because of their range, this species is sometimes called the Rocky Mountain goat. They are the largest mammals to reach elevations of 13,000 feet. They spend most of their time above the tree line in rugged alpine conditions, grazing on low-growing vegetation such as grasses, ferns and moss, but sometimes they migrate to lower elevations.
BUILT TOUGH: Mountain goats are built for mountain life: Thick, woolly coats protect them from cold temperatures, wind and other animals. Short, strong legs help them climb and jump on uneven surfaces. Mountain goats can be recognized by their shiny black horns and shaggy white beards. Their horns grow continuously, and the tips can be worn down until they are quite sharp. Every winter, a new growth ring forms on each horn, so it’s possible to tell the age of a mountain goat by its horns.
GET A GRIP: Mineral licks, also called salt licks, are natural deposits of sodium, calcium, iron and other nutrients that help bone and muscle growth. Those resources are limited in mountain vegetation, especially in early summer. To find the nutrients they crave, mountain goats will scale steep, rocky mountain cliffs in search of mineral licks.
Like any rock climber, they need to get a good grip with their hooves to accomplish this. Their hooves have two wide-spread toes that improve balance like a snowshoe, and rough, spongy toe pads provide a good grip on smooth surfaces. Hair grows between the toes for even better traction. Their specialized hooves allow them to climb extremely steep and jagged surfaces.
NANNY KNOWS BEST: Female mountain goats, called nannies, are very protective of their offspring and territory. They band together with other nannies and claim the best available territory while pushing older males away from the herd. The males, called billies, may form their own small groups, but they keep away from the nannies until breeding season in early winter.
RESPECT THE HORNS: When wild animals learn to expect food from humans, they lose their natural avoidance and may grow comfortable approaching humans. Although they have a friendly appearance, mountain goats can be very aggressive and territorial — and if they feel threatened, their horns can quickly become deadly weapons. For the safety of mountain goats, yourself, and other hikers, follow these tips provided by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife:
• Maintain a distance of at least 50 yards from mountain goats; instead of getting closer for a view or photograph, use binoculars and a telephoto camera lens.
• Never offer food to mountain goats or any other wildlife.
• Never urinate within 50 yards of a hiking trail; the salt and minerals in bodily fluids can attract mountain goats.
• Leave pets at home when hiking in mountain goat habitat.
• Do not touch, surround, crowd or chase a mountain goat.
• Do not allow a mountain goat to approach too closely; yell with a loud voice, wave your arms or an article of clothing, and if need be, throw rocks at the goat.
• Avoid hiking alone in areas where mountain goats are habituated to people; in the case of an attack, hiking partners may be able to help.
LEARN MORE: You can see mountain goats and other herd animals — like elk, deer, bison, and moose — at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Eatonville. The park’s Discovery Tram Tour carries you through 435 acres of natural forests and meadows, where the animals roam freely. Join park staff during Kids ’n’ Critters weekend, from Saturday-Feb. 16, when up to four children (12 and younger) are admitted free with every full-paying adult. This special weekend will include crafts, workshops and animal appearances. Learn more at nwtrek.org.