Native Mountain Goats Thriving in South Cascades

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Mountain goats have gotten a bad rap in recent years. 

That’s what goring a person to death, which happened in the Olympic National Park in 2010, will do for the reputation of a mostly docile species.

That fatal confrontation, along with the environmental consequences of 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 by means of removal by trapping and potentially hunting.

Mountain goats have also managed to carve out 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 over time, 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 into British Columbia and up to Alaska where the bulk of the species’ prime habitat, and population numbers, can be found.

The mountain goat, or Oreamnos americanus, is a animal 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 far from their highland homes on their own accord, human relocation efforts over the past century and a half have established viable populations in western states such as Idaho, Oregon, Utah and Nevada.

A male billy goat stands about 3 ½ feet tall at the crown and will weigh somewhere around 180 pounds, with thick white fur and sweeping horns. In Washington state, it is believed that there are somewhere around 3,000 mountain goats today. Historically speaking, that number is believed to have been closer to 9,000 animals. While there are sporadic strongholds of mountain goats east of the Cascade Mountain range, those populations are largely confined to the Naches and Chelan areas. 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 around 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 noted known mountain goat territory at Smith Creek Butte, Castle Butte, Stonewall Ridge and Cold Creek Butte, with about 25 animals scattered between those spots. Homan said a mountain goat was even reported standing at the shore of Merrill Lake 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 that mountain goats will follow the snowline up the mountain in the spring in order to eat the fresh green chutes of vegetation that emerge from the grip of winter.

“That productivity of those forbs of flowering plants as well as grass that comes up in those places is their most important energy source of the year,” explained Holman. “They need to get as much of that food as they can to grow and regain the condition that they’ve lost in the winter time.”

As the spring turns to summer and then fall and winter, mountain goats move on to munch less desirable foods that are dried out or more woody in their composition. During hard times, mountain goats can even 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.

In its cold-hearted way, winter works to naturally thin the numbers of mountain goats. Holman said that last winter was particularly rough for wildlife as an unusually severe bout of cold and and a persistent snowpack that crept into the lowlands made life tough. Holman noted that those conditions may have contributed to a slight dip in population at Goat Rocks this year, but noted that the numbers at Mount St. Helens remained relatively unchanged.

The average lifespan of an adult mountain goat is somewhere between 10 and 12 years, but Homan said getting a foothold on life can be extremely challenging for a mountain goat. 

“For the kids, an awful lot of them die. It speaks to kind of the harshness of the environment that they are living in,” said Holman, who noted that less than 50 percent of mountain goat offspring make it past 1 year old.

Where female elk and deer are typically sexually mature by the time they are 1 ½ to 2 ½ years of age, a nanny mountain goat is not able to reproduce until she reaches 4 years old. That slow development keeps population numbers in check in a landscape where precious resources are often dwindled down to bare bones and slick rocks.

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 snows arrive in winter, most animals head down the mountain in order to escape the snow drifts, and many mountain goats follow suit. However, the lowlands can become overcrowded during the peak of winter with so many critters seeking refuge. That’s when mountain goats will turn convention on its head and set out for the steepest peaks they can find in order to ride out the storm high above the fray 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 and the shrub fields 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 on their own accord. To date, there have been no reintroduction efforts at the volcano since the 1980 eruption, but mountain goats from other areas continue to show up to the recovering landscape. Holman said that where most mountain goats tend to prefer the desolation and safety of higher altitudes around 12,000 feet, the moonscaped blast zone of Mount St. Helens has created a unique lowland habitat favored by mountain goats at just 2,000 feet. Holman noted that Silver Star Mountain in Clark County also has a healthy population of mountain goats that have found a low altitude home as well, right around the 4,000 foot level. 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.

While there are plenty of mountain goats around, Holman said thus far there have not been any reported problematic run-ins between the majestic animals and their human counterparts 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,” said Holman. “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 issues and the sheer number of visitors hitting those popular trails, there may be another factor at work that’s making the paths of mountain goats and humans intersect so frequently. Holman suspects 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 a set of surprising substances — urine and sweat. Scientists have noted that as hikers utilize popular trails, their sweat and urine becomes crystallized along the trail, which creates 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 based on the preference points system. 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.

“It’s very high,” said Holman of the hunting success rate at Goat Rocks and elsewhere. “It’s not 100 percent statewide, but it’s very close.”

Holman noted that the high success rate is offset by the fact that the WDFW offers so few tags each year. 

“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 so choose, including muzzleloaders and modern rifles.

Holmans says that 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,” said Holman. “They were thought to be wiped out during the eruption of 1980, and now their numbers are back up to about 250 animals, to the point that we have considered should we maybe open it back up for a hunt, which would be the first time since the eruption.”

Holman said that although nannies and billies look very similar, and there are no official regulations covering the matter, the WDFW prefers that hunters harvest only male mountain goats.

“It’s just darn hard to tell them apart, but we do encourage people to try to get the males and most people want to get a male,” said Holman. 

There has even been talk of making hunters take an online identification test in order to get a mountain goat tag. Holman said the biggest difference between the males and females is size. Males are bigger, heavier and more muscular, particularly in the shoulders. Looking straight on, Holman said that differences can also be observed in the horns since billies have horns that form a sweeping arc while females have horns that point straight back before hooking at the end. If those comparative measures fail, Holman also noted, at least half in jest, that if you can get close enough to see the penis sheath on the underside of a mountain goat, you can be sure it is a male.

In addition to hunting mountain goats, Native American tribes have also started to utilize 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,” said Holman, who called the Cowlitz Tribe a good partner in goat management.

Historically, the Cowlitz Tribe was known for curating prized 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 from tribes without access to mountain goats, and they 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 currently under review by wildlife authorities and land managers. Those non-native goats have swelled to a population of more than 600 animals with an estimated increase of around 45 percent over the next five years.

In addition to the danger posed to hikers encountering mountain goats along the trail, 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 in order 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 parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectId=49246. 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 online at wdfw.wa.gov/living/mountain_goats.html.

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