Mountain Goats : living on the edge
Updated September 21, 2013
A species that has evolved in an isolated world of rock, ice and snow will find it hard to accept a noisy newcomer moving into its territory but this is what the mountain goats of Jasper are now faced with. Isolated no longer, they will be forced to share their familiar habitat with an unwanted alien. Homo sapiens and all his relentless noise, stench and frenetic activity is invading the domain of an animal which wants to be alone but may be forced to stay because its habitat is so critical to its needs.
There are two populations of goats in the park threatened by proposed developments:
• In the Icefields area 100 km south of the town of Jasper, Brewster Travel Canada (part of the American Viad corporation) is building a thrill-based skywalk sticking out 30 m above goat habitat near the Sunwapta Canyon. Goats are very wary about overhead disturbance and Brewster is estimating around 5000 visitors each day on this contrivance during the peak summer months.
• Marmot Basin Ski area wants to propose ski lift construction in an adjacent wilderness area. A just completed three-year study indicates there are about 40 goats using this area in two separate herds – one in the Mount Muhigan area and the other on the slopes around Whistlers Creek; each with its own mineral lick. This study will dictate what mitigations are needed – not whether the development should be rejected or not. A 26-year ongoing study at Caw Ridge north of Jasper National Park on one of the largest herds of mountain goats in Alberta has concluded they are very sensitive to human disturbance. So, once again, in a national park wildlife will no doubt take second place to business.
• Hang gliding and paragliding are now being considered for the mountain parks. Has Parks Canada any studies to show that these two sports will not adversely affect mountain goats? A study completed in 2001 in the Swiss Alps concluded that paragliding was responsible for female chamois fleeing into forest cover and remaining there for up to four hours. Chamois and mountain goat are related as two sub-species in the goat-antelope family.
The history of the mountain goat begins somewhere back in the mists of time on the precipitous slopes of the Himalayas. Here primitive goat-antelope found their niche high above other ungulates and away from most predators. Over the millennia they spread out through Eurasia and Siberia and finally across the Bering Strait land bridge to North America. With predators such as the dire wolf, sabre-tooth cats and an ancestor of todays grizzly bear prowling around, the goats found safety in the mountain chains of this new world. In Canada they are now found in the Coast, Cariboo, Selkirk, Purcell and Rocky Mountain ranges.
The mountain goat’s almost pure white coat makes it easy to identify along with its black stiletto horns and shaggy beard. The sexes are very alike although the females – or ‘nannies’ – have horns that curve backwards sharply at the tips, while the males – or ‘billies’ horns are thicker and curve more gradually from the base. Competition for space or for rutting rights sometimes leads to attacks with these weapons. Two goats may circle each other making stabs at their opponent’s rear flanks but they are well protected with skin almost an inch thick so it is usually more a case of psychological warfare until one retreats.
Kids are born from the end of May to mid-June and within a few hours of birth are attempting to climb everything in sight – including their mothers. Two weeks later the kid will be nibbling on grasses and weaned within six weeks. Mountain goats feed on grasses, sedges, rushes, forbs and shrubs throughout the summer but come winter their feed is mostly forbs and Douglas and alpine fir. Their main predators on the steep slopes are mountain lions but golden eagles knock unprotected kids off ledges. If the goats stray too far from the cliffs they are in danger from wolves, grizzlies and wolverines. But the main causes of mortality are avalanches and accidental slips on icy slopes.
A species that has evolved in such precipitous habitat has learned some pretty unique ways of getting out of trouble. Douglas Chadwick in his wonderfully informative book ‘A Beast the Color of Winter’ describes how a billy he was watching effectively carried out a complete slow-motion cartwheel to turn itself around on a narrow trail.
Jasper has approximately 500 mountain goats spread throughout the alpine and subalpine areas (Parks Canada lacks the funding to establish the true numbers). In the months of June and July the nannies of the Mount Kerkeslin population 40 kms south of Jasper town site come down with their kids to take advantage of a natural mineral deposit beside the Icefields Parkway. The sodium in the lick is critical for lactating females and it is a measure of this necessity that the goats will brave the risk of predation, the crowds of people and noise of the traffic to access the lick. Used to the remote wildness of the high peaks, they are easily stressed by close contact with humans.
Respect for a unique species
Jasper’s mountain goats have survived for thousands of years in some of the fiercest weather and most difficult terrain on the continent. They know where edible plants grow in each season, where critical minerals seep from the rocks, where water drips, where the trails go and where they and their kids are safe from predators – both four-legged and winged.
The mountain goat deserves our utmost respect and a commitment to allow it the solitude it needs to thrive into the distant future.