Mountain Goats: Fond of Salt, Snow, & Steep Slopes
Down in the valleys, it was a warm, mid-June day. My partner and I and our dog had traveled several thousand feet up into the Mission Mountains, with the intention of camping for a few nights at a lake, when we encountered a field of snow. We had yet to cross out of the treeline and were almost two miles from camp, but the snow patch was small, and it was easy to pick up the trail again.
In less than half a mile, that changed. Soon, we emerged from the last, wind-stunted trees, and our boots edged up against snow that stretched for hundreds and hundreds of feet, as far as the eye could see. It was broken only by cliffs to the southeast and the occasional red boulder.
It was barely noon. The sun was out. We consulted and made a go of it. The snow was soft in the sun and slippery. We tested each step before committing, seeking to avoid an injury from post-holing.
The only tracks on the snowfield looked like melted-out deer tracks. They traveled in a straight, confident line, and when we reached the far side, it turned out they’d been directly on top of the trail. We traveled a few hundred feet before reaching another vast snowfield. Again, we saw the tracks, and again, they lined up exactly over the trail.
Where the snow had melted, yellow glacier lilies bloomed. We moved past bare bushes ribboned with white wool and stopped to touch an oily, sweet-smelling clump. Squinting at the solitary tracks across the snow, one of us asked, “Are we following a mountain goat?”
Mountain goats, which aren’t actually goats but are considered “goat-antelopes” and whose closest relatives live in the Himalayas, prefer to live above the treeline and in high alpine meadows, beyond the usual range of predators like mountain lions. Beyond the range of many humans, too. They are one of the least-studied large mammals in North America. Their native reach stretches from Alaska to western Montana. In the 1940s and 50s, they were introduced east of the Continental Divide, to the Absarokas, Madisons, and Crazies, by Montana Fish and Game to create opportunities for recreational hunting.
They eat grass and sedges, moss, woody plants, and lichen, and will travel through treed and cliffless habitats they don’t like to reach a natural salt lick. Their mountaintops are places of cold, strong winds and ultraviolet light, brief growing seasons, and frequent snow. It is not uncommon for a mountain goat to die in an avalanche. They prefer slopes over thirty degrees in steepness. Their hooves are split down the middle and when weight is applied, the two halves come together, creating a suction-cup-like grip that helps them navigate cliffs.
Mountain goats breed in late fall, and it’s the one time of year when the males, known as billies, rule the roost. For most of the year, the females, or nannies, run the billies out of the best feeding and bedding areas, claiming these spots for their small groups of kids and subadults, called bands. As with everything, there are exceptions. Historically, mountain goats in Glacier National Park haven’t always segregated by sex, perhaps because there is enough food to support larger bands.
But in mid-June, in the Missions, the tracks we saw most likely belonged to a lone billy. That night, in our tent by the lake, we woke to the sound of something moving through camp and our dog standing at alert, listening carefully. We climbed out of the tent, and there he was—snowy white and thick as a boulder, weighing well over two hundred pounds, investigating our sweaty gear and pee spots for salt.
Upon seeing us, he sauntered up a small cliff, then paused to look down, his heavy white shoulders framed against the star-strewn night, the only other large mammal for miles around.
Today’s Field Note was written in the Field Notes Writing Workshop at the Montana Natural History Center. I’m Phoebe McIlwain Bright for Field Notes, brought to you by the Montana Natural History Center, providing natural history education for schools and the public throughout Montana. To find out about upcoming events and programs at the Center, call 406.327.0405, or visit our website at MontanaNaturalist.org.