Mountain Goats – Alpine Experts
Mountain goats are masters of the vertical world. These shaggy, white-coated animals are skilled climbers who can balance on a spot no bigger than a Loonie. An adult mountain goat can weigh between 80 and 100 kilograms, as much as a black bear. Their gymnastic ability to scale a mountainside can be breathtaking.
Western Canada is made for mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus.) Bill Jex, BC Gov’t sheep & goat biologist estimates that between 40,000 and 70,000 of them range throughout BC’s backcountry alone, making up half the global population of this species. COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) lists them as not at risk, but there have been localized extirpations and declining populations in areas of southern BC. Parks Canada considers goats an indicator species of ecosystem health and climate change impacts because of their unique ability to occupy the harsh, snowy alpine environment.
In very rare occasions these alpine ungulates can be as dangerous as they are beautiful. In 2010, a mountain goat in Washington State’s Olympic National Park killed a 63-year-old hiker (mountain goats successfully colonized the Olympic Range after humans introduced them to the area in the 1920s as prey for hunters.) Last September backpackers reported finding a dead grizzly near a trail crossing Yoho National Parks’ Burgess Pass. The cause, according to Parks Canada; death by a mountain goat horn.
More and more people are getting outside and in the mountains. That’s a good thing, generally, but it’s not without problems. In two popular BC provincial parks, Valhalla Park, north of Nelson and Cathedral Park near Keremeos, mountain goats are getting unusually up close with humans. Why they’re doing it is no secret to wildlife biologists. In spring and early summer mountain goats, especially nannies with kids, need minerals like potassium, phosphorous, and sodium to compensate for natural deficiencies that result from a winter of stingy forage. So intense is the drive for nutrients, they’ll travel 40 or more kilometres over rugged mountain terrain just to reach a natural salt lick. However opportunistic herds, like the ones hanging around certain campsites in Valhalla and Cathedral Lakes have found a much easier source – salty human pee, grey water, and sweaty hiking clothes. In fact, they have become uncomfortably addicted to it and it’s creating a tenuous human-wildlife management challenge for BC Parks. The problem is what to do about it. Weaning mountain goats off this salty supply isn’t easy. Diversionary salt licks, placing blocks of salt at locations away from people and campsites can work for awhile. However, it seems goats tend to revert back to old ways, especially after several generations have learned to be tolerant of people.
Most biologists agree it’s more of a human issue than a wildlife issue. In problem areas, using the outhouse instead of peeing next to the tent can go a long way. So can properly disposing grey water. Infrastructure is important. Installing more outhouses, greywater pits, and signage explaining goat behavior and habitat is a good start. But humans can be as stubborn as goats can be when it comes to altering their actions.
There’s a small percentage of people who probably don’t care. No amount of education will change their attitudes. But most who travel in goat country and have a chance to see one are thrilled and don’t wish them harm. But we have to remember that a goat’s normal behavior is to avoid humans. If you see one lounging outside your tent waiting for you to do your, ahem, morning business, don’t be fooled into thinking the goat is tame. It’s not. It’s wild and if the tables turn and they perceive a threat, it can go from cuddly looking to deadly in a heartbeat. And when a wild animal starts to get aggressive because of human disturbance, things rarely end well for the animal.
Are you a wildlife advocate, enthusiast or just like to learn more? Check out our blog post on the wolverine, highlighting another amazing backcountry resident, “The Ultimate Winter Specialist”