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The Natural World: Mountain Goats

By Tina Mitchell

One mid-winter afternoon a while ago, we were driving from Coaldale to Cotopaxi. Above the Arkansas River, a patch of snow gleamed on a dry, south-facing cliff. Odd, since snow doesn’t usually linger long there. Then, the “patch” moved – a mountain goat! A first for us in the canyon. We dubbed it “Goatapaxi.” Later, DOW officials suggested that it was probably an old male, unable to survive higher up. We never saw “Goatapaxi” again, but the memory remains vivid.

A large, hoofed mammal endemic to North America, the mountain goat stands about three feet tall at the shoulder. Both males (billies) and females (nannies) have angular heads; black, backward-swept horns; and short tails. Their dense undercoats of fine wool covered by insulative layers of longer, hollow hairs help them to withstand temperatures of minus 50 degrees F. and winds of up to 100 m.p.h.

Mountain goats live above timberline in summer and move to lower elevations in winter. They feed on a variety of high-mountain vegetation such as mosses, lichens, shrubs, ferns, conifers, flowering plants, grasses, forbs and sedges. Goats can move through and find food under deep snow better than their fellow high-altitude ungulates – Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep – can. This greater tolerance of conditions and wider variety of foods allow goats to inhabit higher winter ranges than bighorns.

[InContentAdTwo] Several unique adaptations allow mountain goats to move through their steep homeland as easily as we stroll around our neighborhoods. Travelling on narrow ledges is simplified by a body that is flattened from side to side (laterally compressed). Its skeleton allows it to draw all four hooves together, turning small projections into secure footholds. Unusually flexible toes, covered with rough, pliable traction pads, can either spread wide to distribute the animal’s grip over a large area or scrunch together to grab onto tiny outcroppings. Vertical climbing is almost impossible for most four-legged animals, but mountain goats use their strong hind legs to spring up steep slopes, pulling themselves up to a higher ledge with their forelegs and muscular shoulders.

Mountain goats spend their lives on the steep slopes and rugged cliff faces of Colorado’s highest mountains. Despite how at ease they seem in the high country now, they are not native to the state. From the 1940s to the 1960s, they were brought in as game animals. They now wander some of the most inaccessible terrain in the state – summering in alpine meadows, on precipitous mountain slopes and jagged rocky cliffs above timberline and wintering on steep, windswept, south-facing slopes. Goats prefer steeper, higher terrain than bighorns do and are much more likely to climb upward, using geography as a defense, since most predators cannot follow. Even so, wolves, wolverines, lynx and bears attack goats of most ages, given the opportunity. The mountain lion is perhaps the primary predator since it is sufficiently powerful to overwhelm the largest adults and uniquely nimble enough to navigate the goat’s rocky habitat. Nannies must also defend their young from aerial patrols by Golden Eagles, also a major predatory threat.

Mountain goats first breed at 2½ years. Having a baby (kid) every other year, the female typically gives birth to a single kid after a six-month gestation period. Born in late May, the kid begins to run and climb within hours; the baby grows quickly and follows its mother everywhere within a week. Nannies protect their young by leading them out of danger, standing over them when encountering predators and positioning themselves below their kids on steep slopes to stop potential freefalls. Although they are mostly weaned within one month, kids follow their mothers closely for the first year of life or until the nanny gives birth again.

The scientific name of Oreamnos americanus points out that mountain goats are not true goats (of the genus Capra). Mountain goats are actually more closely related to the chamois of the Alps and some African antelopes than to domestic goats. But when explorers and settlers first came west, these white, horned animals scampering about the mountains reminded them of farm goats. A misnomer was born.

Living atop sharp peaks and knife-sharp ridges that tower over wide valleys, mountain goats are definitely mammals with a view. One of the few creatures inhabiting such a stunning yet harsh environment, the mountain goat not only survives there, it thrives. One creature’s hostile environment is another’s home sweet home.

After a quarter-century in Colorado, Tina and her family recently migrated to Southern California, where she’ll spend the next quarter-century trying to remember that the mountains lie to the east.