As big as a black bear, scaling steep cliff faces on teeny-tiny hooves, mountain goats are usually unseen specks on distant mountainsides, but climate change coupled with human encroachment on their territory has parks officials concerned a human-goat showdown is inevitable. Words: Andrew Findlay.
Mountain goats are the ultimate masters of the vertical world. These shaggy, white-coated animals are skilled climbers that 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—and their gymnastic ability to scale a mountainside can be breathtaking. But when push comes to shove, these alpine ungulates can be as lethal as they are beautiful.
Last September, at the start of the Labour Day long weekend, a couple of hikers in Yoho National Park discovered a dead grizzly near the Burgess Pass trail. They wisely retreated to the parking lot, not knowing whether there was another bear lurking in the area—adult male grizzlies have been known to attack and kill younger males in territorial displays of aggression. Once back in cell range, the hikers notified Parks Canada. A team was immediately dispatched to investigate the scene. It was a busy holiday weekend in the mountains, and a carcass on the side of a trail could be a dangerous attractant for other wildlife. Wardens slung the dead bear to a parks compound near Field. Over the next few days, with the help of University of Calgary researchers, Parks Canada conducted a forensic necropsy to determine the cause of death. The results were surprising, says David Laskin, a Parks Canada environmental scientist based in Banff—puncture wounds on the bear’s neck and armpits led to the ruling of death by mountain goat horn.
It was a first for Laskin, and a rare example of just how deadly mountain goats can be if backed into a corner. Knowing the predatory behavior of grizzlies and the defensive strategies of goats enabled Laskin and his fellow scientists to recreate what went down on Burgess Pass that day last fall. Bears attack prey from behind by locking onto an animal’s head and shoulders.
“The goat’s reaction would have been to thrust its head back with its very sharp horns,” Laskin explains.
In the case of the grizzly-goat encounter in Yoho, the bear took numerous hits from the horns, one that punctured its lung and another that went through its lower jaw before piercing its brain. The details are gruesome, but that’s life in the wilderness.
“It was intriguing for sure. We know goats are capable of this sort of behavior and had heard reports, but we had never encountered it before in the park. There are always interesting things like this happening in nature, but we’re not often privy to them,” says Laskin, who works on wildlife research and wildlife-human conflict mitigation in the four Rocky Mountain parks: Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho.
It turned out to be as intriguing for the general public as it was for scientists. Laskin says the Yoho goat-versus-grizzly story went viral, well beyond Canada’s borders, and he welcomes the surge of interest in mountain goats, an animal that Parks Canada considers an indicator species—a species that demonstrates how an ecosystem is faring—because of its unique ability to occupy a harsh and uncompromising alpine ecological niche.
Western Canada is made for mountain goats, or Oreamnos americanus as they are known by their scientific name. Somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 of them range throughout BC’s backcountry alone, making up half the global population of this species. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) lists them as not at risk. Though overall, the BC population appears stable, there have been some local extirpations and declining populations in areas of southern BC.
Since 2015, Parks Canada has been conducting aerial mountain goat surveys to update population data that is more than four decades old. Though research is still underway, Laskin says surveys indicate that goat numbers in the mountain parks remain stable. More than 300 were counted in Yoho alone (Laskin notes that this is a sample population only and that the actual number is likely considerably higher).
That’s the good news. But there is trouble on the horizon for this iconic animal. Parks Canada has attached radio collars to 30 mountain goats in both Banff and Yoho parks to get a better idea of habitat use and patterns of movement. The effects of global warming are magnified in the goat’s alpine habitat, as witnessed by the melt and rapid retreat of our mountain glaciers, making mountain goats a canary in the coalmine of climate change.
“Thermal regulation will be a challenge for mountain goats,” Laskin says. “Their response will be to go higher, but eventually they will run out of mountain top.”
Bill Jex is the ungulate specialist for the BC Ministry for Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. Jex, along with his counterparts in Alberta, frequently collaborates and shares mountain goat data with Parks Canada. After all, wildlife doesn’t respect provincial or park boundaries.
He agrees that climate change is a real threat to goat populations. Jex says it’s already impacting the animals, especially in dry interior habitats where warmer winters are resulting in deeper snowpacks that cover critical and historically snow-free winter forage.
And there’s another emerging pressure on goats, says Jex; their mountain habitat is not the people-less wilderness fortress that it once was.
“People are becoming more interested in ungulates because they’re easier to see,” Jex says. “Our landscape is much more permeable today with hikers, bikers, and ATV’ers.”
Valhalla Provincial Park west of Slocan Lake in the Kootenays is one of those places where humans are infiltrating goat habitat in greater numbers. Gimli Peak is a popular hiking destination in the park. It’s also becoming increasingly popular with mountains goats. In spring and early summer, mountain goats—especially nannies
with kids—have an intense drive to acquire minerals like potassium, phosphorous, and sodium to compensate for natural deficiencies that occur over winter. They will often travel 40 or more kilometres over rugged mountain terrain just to reach a natural salt lick. However opportunistic herds, like the one in Valhalla park, have found a much easier and readily available source—salty human urine. In the Gimli meadows, goats have become uncomfortably addicted to this unnatural source of mineral supplements, and it’s creating a tense human-wildlife dynamic. Kim Poole, a Nelson biologist who has studied mountain goats around BC, calls Gimli “ideal mountain goat habitat.”
“When goats see people, their normal response is to avoid them,” Poole says.
Mountain goats tend to avoid humans, says Poole, the way they would avoid a predatory grizzly; by escaping to high ground and deftly scaling the seemingly unscalable with their cloven hooves. But not at Gimli. There they casually hang around campers waiting for someone to tinkle in the meadow.
BC Parks is dealing with a similar human-goat issue in Cathedral Provincial Park, west of Osoyoos. Mountain goats with a reputation for conviviality have become part of the visitor attraction. Although it could be easy for hapless hikers to mistake the photogenic mountain goats at Gimli or Cathedral Lakes for tame animals, it would be a mistake.
In 2010, a mountain goat in Washington State’s Olympic National Park gored and killed a 63-year-old hiker. Rangers eventually tracked and shot the goat that had allegedly exhibited aggressive behaviour in the past. The following year, Olympic Park rangers were forced to euthanize another aggressive mountain goat. Interestingly, mountain goats are not endemic to the region. They had successfully colonized the Olympic Range after humans introduced them to the area in the 1920s; an ecological experiment with no other rationale than to grow prey for hunters.
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Back in BC, wildlife managers are hoping to avoid having to shoot goats to protect people, but it’s a challenge. Diversionary salt licks—literally placing blocks of salt in locations far from campsites—is one option, but it’s considered a band-aid at best. Hazing mountain goats with rocks, air guns, or dogs is another option. But that requires manpower, time, and financial resources, and likely isn’t sustainable over the long term. Therefore, public education and adequate outhouse and greywater disposal facilities in high-use areas are considered the key.
“It seems funny to have to tell people to use the outhouse, but that’s kind of what it boils down to,” says Kirk Safford, a conservation specialist for BC Parks.
So far, Laskin says mountain goats sniffing around campsites for salty human pee hasn’t been a problem in the national parks. Though it’s speculation at best, it’s likely a function of the natural geochemistry of rocks in the area providing adequate salt for wildlife. In other words, it’s not worth the mountain goat’s hassle to get cozy with campers; history shows such behavior usually ends badly for wildlife.
“We usually see mountain goats as white dots on the cliffs. They avoid people, typically,” Laskin says.
There’s no doubt, viewing them up close can be a special treat. But the mountain goat’s ability to thrive in the vertical world like no other large mammal is not only an evolutionary advantage—it’s the key to its survival.
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