Monarch of high country: sure-footed mountain goat
Seattle Times staff reporter
Up nearly 6,300 feet atop Nason Ridge, the goat is 50 yards away, flicking its ears, its massive shoulders, big as a fullback's.
Even its legs are spotless, shining white pantaloons of fur, stylishly tipped with black hoofs. There's not a mark on the bearded beast anywhere, and it's fluffy, as if it just came out of the dryer.
A well-scarified goat wallow dug into the dry, rocky ground may have drawn it here. Goats indulge in dust baths, keeping away from biting insects and parasites.
At the click of a camera shutter the goat, a big billy who looks to be a about 200 pounds, dives off the ridge, disappearing in a puff of dust. It looks too big to move so fast, clambering down a steep chute of granite and scree to the green spires of sub-alpine spruce below.
Mountain goats are native to these ridges of Eastern Washington. They cling to the high and wild places dotted with snow even in August. Goats have good taste: Their airy homes shine in the translucent light of the high country.
There are long stretches of perfect silence up here, with only the music of pines and wind. A sneeze seems indecently loud, as if in a church. The Sauk-Suiattle tribe of the North Cascades believe the goat has a pure spirit because it lives in such rarefied ground, said James Joseph, 62, former tribal chairman and natural-resources director for the tribe.
With just about 200 members, this tiny mountainous tribe has always lived with the goats in the high country above Darrington, making hats, socks and sweaters from its wool, rubbing its fat into their skin, fashioning its horns into arrowheads for spearing salmon, and eating its pungent, venison-like meat.
The eldest member of the Mountain Goat Clan, Joseph said the tribe hasn't been able to hunt the goat in nearly 15 years because its numbers have dwindled. There aren't even enough goats left to gather their wool from alpine plants, where it used to hang in swags as the goats shed in summer.
The goat still sits atop the crest of the tribe's flag, but not atop its ridgelines. There used to be about 10,000 mountain goats in Washington; today there are fewer than 4,000. "We have to take care of them so they can take care of us," Joseph said.
Goats are uniquely designed for their niche in the high country, from their sharp horns, used to stab and gore competitors or predators, all the way down to their traction-soled hooves.
Douglas Chadwick, in his book A Beast the Color of Winter reports the goat's cloven hooves have two, wide-set toes that are prehensile. The goat can actually close and manipulate their toes for sure footing, or spread them wider for stability. The eight toes can act individually, each doing whatever it takes to hold on.
The toes are pointed, allowing the goat to dig into the dirt or snow as it climbs, and it can slow a descent by dropping its rump into a slide.
The rump — with an extra-thick hide to protect against horn jabs — makes a good set of brakes.
The goat's massive shoulder muscles enable it to pull itself up hill, break trail in heavy snow and dig for food in winter. Some observers have watched goats chin themselves up a ledge using only their front legs — something no deer could do, said Clifford Rice of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. And the goat can eat most anything: pine needles, lichen, moss, juniper berries, alpine flowers, bark.
Not really a goat at all, but a relative of the antelope, Oreamnos americanus ranges from southern Alaska south to British Columbia. It can be found in north Central Washington east of the Cascade crest and in parts of Idaho and Montana. Nannies usually give birth to only one kid a year. The goat's major predators include golden eagles, which will carry off kids, gravity — falls can be deadly — and winter. Goats live about a dozen years in the wild.
Introduced populations persist in the Olympics, among other places, where they were placed in the 1920s to provide game for hunters.
The goat has bedeviled managers of Olympic National Park, who backed away from a 1995 draft plan to shoot the goats from helicopters after a public outcry.
Park managers have tried a bit of everything to rid themselves of the goats, from shooting them with bio-bullets chock full of sterilant to bagging them with net guns and stunning them with tranquilizing darts shot from helicopters.
The somnolent goats were gathered in nets and delivered to state biologists, who exported them to Utah, Idaho, and other locales.
Between 1981 and 1989 more than 400 goats were removed. Park managers stopped the program in 1990. Left with only the most footsure and wary goats, the helicopter captures had become dangerous.
There was an estimated population of about 237 to 325 goats in the park in 1997, the most recent census. In 1983 about 1,000 animals were counted, park-wide.
They were virtual pests then; Ken Raedeke, a goat expert with the University of Washington, reports goats stumbling across tent stakes to lick his arms and legs to savor the salt from his sweat. "Their tongue is kind of rough, not soft and smooth." Who knew?
That's nothing compared with their horns, which he discovered were sharp enough to slice right through his wool shirt.
Olympic park managers are still studying what do to about the goats, which mangle delicate alpine plants.
Meanwhile nearly everywhere else, a dirth of goats remains the problem.
Hunting has been cut back by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, resulting in pent up demand. Last year, 13,402 hunters applied for their one, lifetime chance to kill a mountain goat. They competed for just 24 permits, the same number to be let this year during the goat season, beginning this Sunday through Oct. 31.
Hunting is allowed on any band with 30 or more members. Some goat bands — those in the lower Cascade crest and the north shore of Lake Chelan — appear to be stable and even increasing.
But the goats, reclusive in their mountainous redoubts, are still very much a mystery. No one even knows for sure how many there are, or what's doing them in.
Historical over-hunting, logging, roading, penetration of humans into the high country for recreation, and fire suppression that allows forestland to intrude on alpine meadows the goats rely on for food are all likely culprits.
While the goats are not listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, momentum is building to conserve them.
"They are such an elegant animal and they are very regal," Raedeke said. "Monarchs of the high country."
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com. Natural Wonders appears every other Monday.