Mountain Goats : living on the edge
Updated April 17, 2011
Many visitors to the Rocky Mountain National Parks seeing mountain goats for the first time think they are some kind of sheep with their shaggy white coats. They see the shorter haired brown bighorn sheep and think they are goats. Their confusion is quite understandable.
However, while bighorn sheep are members of the sheep tribe mountain goats belong to a small tribe of mountain antelope (Rupicaprini) with relatives in Asia – the serow and the goral. Another more distant relative is the chamois of the European Alps. The mountain goat’s scientific name is Oreamnos americanus – ‘Oreamnos’ meaning ‘lamb’ in Greek thereby compounding the sheep/goat confusion!
The history of the mountain goat begins somewhere back in the mists of time 12 to 13 million years ago on the precipitous slopes of the Himalayas. Here primitive rupicaprids found their niche high above other ungulates and away from most predators. About 2 million years ago they began to spread out through Eurasia and eastwards into Siberia. As the ice sheets of the Pleistocene epoch locked up more and more water, sea levels fell by as much as 400 feet creating a passage from what is now Russia to North America and some adventurous ancestor of today’s mountain goat was able to take the first tentative steps towards a new world.
It was not alone in its new land – forerunners of today’s ungulates were already there together with some formidable predators such as the dire wolf, sabre-tooth cats and an ancestor of today’s grizzly bear. The newcomers with their ancestral links to the high mountains of Central Asia found it safer to move upwards into the mountain chains of western North America. As the glaciers melted they remained in isolated pockets among the summits. In Canada they are 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 stilleto 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. A big billy may weigh as much as 120 kgs and a nanny about one third less. Theirs is a matriarchal society with the billies subservient to the nannies. The nannies and their ‘kids’ stay in loosely knit groups most of the summer but the billies are, on the whole, solitary or in bachelor groups. In winter both nannies and billies are protective of their own small territories. Competition for space or for rutting rights sometimes leads to attacks with their dagger-like horns. Two goats may circle each other making stabs at their opponent’s rear flanks. However they are well protected with skin almost an inch thick and while fatal wounds do sometimes occur it is more a case of psychological warfare until one of them retreats.
Kids are born towards the end of May or beginning of June – six months after the late November rutting season. They are amazingly precocious and within a few hours of birth are trying to climb everything in sight including their mothers. A nanny will place herself downhill from the kid to prevent it from falling off the mountain in its exuberance and occasionally twins are born which must present quite a challenge for any mother in these dangerous surroundings. Within two weeks the kid will be nibbling on grasses and weaned within six weeks.
Mountain goats feed on grasses, sedges, rushes, forbs and shrubs throughout the day in 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 have learned to 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 fascinating and informative book ‘A Beast the Color of Winter’ describes how a billy he was watching found itself on a ledge too narrow and with no holds to allow it to turn around. In Chadwick’s own words ‘After some tentative foot shuffling the mountaineer braced its front hooves on the ledge and slowly raised the rear of its body off the ground … I watched the beast lift its hindquarters higher and higher and begin to roll them straight over its head. The rear hooves touched the wall here and there for an instant, yet what the creature had effectively carried off by the time it was finished was a complete slow-motion cartwheel.’
Jasper’s mountain goats
Here in Jasper National Park there may be approximately 500 mountain goats spread throughout the alpine and subalpine areas but Parks Canada lacks the funding to establish the true numbers. One place to see them is on the high grassy slopes of the Queen Elizabeth Range on the east side of Maligne Lake. Here they have steep cliffs within easy reach where they can escape from predators.
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 at Goats and Glaciers lookout. The sodium in the lick is critical for lactating females and to other goats to help the transition from spring to summer forage 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 so visitors should photograph them quickly from their cars then move on.
Threats to goats in the park
There are two populations of goats in the park that could be adversely affected by proposed developments:
- in the Icefields area a population is under threat by a proposal by Brewster Travel Canada to build a large skywalk sticking out 30 metres over goat habitat above the Sunwapta River. Goats are very wary about any disturbance above them and this could mean they may abandon the area for less suitable habitat
- Marmot Basin plans to expand ski lift construction into an adjacent wilderness valley where there is an important mineral lick. A three-year study will be made on the mountain goats of that area but the terms of reference for the study at the moment indicate that Parks is only looking for a list of mitigations that would allow the development to go ahead
A Parks Canada paper by Dr. Bruce Leeson in 1986 pointed out that ‘Goats are particularly vulnerable because of traditional dedication to their small, isolated winter ranges and establishment of new habitats is almost impossible for them’
A 20-year ongoing study at Caw Ridge north of Jasper National Park on one of the largest herds of mountain goats in Alberta has concluded that they are very sensitive to human disturbance and are not nearly as capable as bighorn sheep of habituating to human activities. Helicopters are very disturbing to them and the study recommends that they should not fly within 2 kms of goat habitat. Visitors that pay to go heli-sightseeing over mountain goat habitat should be aware of this
Any species that has struggled to survive for thousands of years in such inhospitable surroundings deserves our admiration and a helping hand.