So you’re skiing up the skin track, head down. You finally break out past the trees into the alpine and realize you’re not alone! There’s a beautiful shaggy haired creature there and it looks like she spent a few nights out. Not to worry though, she’s a mountain goat so she’s used to it.
Your first instinct might be to get out your phone for a picture, but if this was a grizzly bear you’d hopefully remember all the lessons about what to do in an encounter; taking a picture doesn’t usually factor in as a top priority. While mountain goats don’t typically elicit a fight or flight reaction, there are still some things you should consider if you see one.
These elusive critters are well adapted to cold, winter conditions but they still live on the edge, figuratively and literally. Mountain goats are only found in Western North America and BC is home to about 50% of the world’s population. In 2015, they became blue listed (a species of special concern) because of localized declines and threats of disturbance by commercial backcountry recreation and helicopter/off-road vehicle use, industrial development, habitat loss and isolation from other populations.
Mountain goats require a combination of steep terrain to escape from predators and adjacent places to forage. In the winter, they can be found on steep, snow shedding or windswept slopes as they look for small grasses and lichens poking through. They can also be found in lower elevations, rocky outcrops, forests and warm aspects to avoid deeper snowpacks.
Winter is a challenging time for them as it’s energetically costly to move through deep snow. They already lose about 25% of their summer mass throughout the winter, without skiers hassling them for a photo op. This year’s unstable snowpack is as especially dangerous for the goats as it is for us. Goats can also be swept away by avalanches.
Mountain goats are likely just as surprised to see you up on some epic ridgeline as you are by them so they can get freaked out easily. They don’t get to go home to a bag of chips and hut booties at the end of the day, so what should we know to keep them safe and healthy out there?
- Give them space: at least 100m in open areas is the default for large mammals. Not only is it a lot of effort and energy to push through deep snow, even more risky is that mountain goats may be displaced to a less desirable location. They often move to steep slopes to avoid predators so this could end up being avalanche terrain in the winter. Goats have been known to get caught and die in avalanches.
- Stay still: Remain still or retreat if they react to your presence, even if they are blocking your line, wildlife gets the right of way.
- Hold back the hounds: Dogs should not be at large and allowed to harass wildlife. If you ski or ride with your pooch, please keep him under control and don’t allow him to chase wildlife.
- Obey closures: There are some closures for ungulate winter range including mountain goats.
- Document: When safe, finally take that picture and take a GPS point of where you are. Sightings are a form of citizen science and are useful to wildlife managers and researchers. Report your wildlife sightings at this link here.
Now that you know how best to care for mountain goats in the winter, I hope you will be lucky enough to see one at a safe distance and be inspired by these majestic yet sensitive mountain beauties. Please feel free to share this with your backcountry friends.
Management Plan for the Mountain Goat (Oreamnos americanus) in British Columbia – especially page 29 “Recreation disturbance and access”.
Wildlife Guidelines for Recreation