Glacier goats


HUNGRY HORSE, MONT. — Glacier National Park biologists will likely take a multi-pronged approach in the coming years to try to narrow down mountain goat population estimates and trends.
The mountain goat is the symbol of the park, but recent studies suggest goats could be threatened as the planet warms.
Based largely on citizen science and other studies, the Park Service estimates there are between 1,200 and 2,100 animals in the 1 million acre park.
That’s a broad margin of error, admits Park supervisory biologist Mark Biel.
“They’re hard animals to count,” Biel said.
For years, Glacier has relied on volunteers supplemented with paid staff to count goats. With citizen science, volunteers trek to set locations and then scan the surrounding landscape using spotting scopes or binoculars. A typical session lasts at least an hour, often longer as observers count how many goats they see — or don’t see. They also record things like sex, age class and behaviors. Some observers have even witnessed goats being preyed upon and captured by grizzly bears.
But over the years, the citizen science protocol has changed. Early on, the program used more observations from more locations, but more recently the protocol has used fewer observations.
Biel said the park is looking at different ways to collect data, including DNA from goat scat and hair, possible overflights using helicopters and ratcheting up the citizen science effort, to name a few.
As the climate warms, goat behavior is starting to change as well, Biel noted. For example, goats at the Goat Lick along Highway 2 used to be on the cliffs along the Middle Fork of the Flathead in significant numbers during the day. Years ago, photographer Sumio Harada captured a now famous photo of dozens of goats eating the mineral-rich soil from the cliffs during the day.
But when Glacier was collaring goats in the area, biologists would sit all day and see maybe a couple of goats. Come dusk, Biel said, 30 to 40 goats would come down from the surrounding hills to visit the licks — far later in the day than anyone expected.
Not only is it cooler, there’s fewer people to bother them, Biel surmised.
The Goat Lick is a very popular stop for tourists when goats are at the river and many jump the barriers to get closer to the goats for photographs.
Goats in other regions of the park could be behaving similarly, Biel suggested — more active at the ends of the days while resting out of the heat of the sun and away from tourists during peak hours.
While they do seem a lot like a domestic goats at times, wild mountain goats are a sensitive species. Biel noted one study that found it takes nine years to replace a mature nanny in the population.
The park, along with researcher Joel Berger, recently completed a study of 24 goats that were radio collared across the park. Preliminary results show that goats will travel long distances to get at mineral licks and, in turn, preferred habitat.
One nanny, for example, was traveling from Great Northern Mountain in the Flathead Range along the Hungry Horse Reservoir to the Goat Lick along the Middle Fork.
The complete results from the study have yet to be published, but Berger and fellow researcher Forest P. Hayes recently published a paper that found that goats don’t use snowfields to cool off in the summer months, they use them primarily to get away from biting insects.
Without snow, the insects at best could make the goats’ lives miserable in the summer, at worst, it could impact their ability to thrive in an environment that is already rife with dangers.
Insects have been known to cause declines in other animal populations, most notably moose. Winter ticks in moose in the Northeast have decimated some moose populations as the animals spend enormous amounts of energy trying to rid themselves of the blood-sucking pests. The end result is a high mortality rate of moose calves, which simply don’t have the means to deal with all the ticks. Some moose may have as many as 40,000 ticks on their bodies.


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