Studying the Mountain Monarchs

By DILLON TABISH for the Flathead Beacon Newspaper

In his definitive book, “A Beast the Color of Winter,” Doug Chadwick explains in exhaustive detail the intricate and death-defying nature of Oreamnos americanus, a “white-coated survivor from the Ice Age” commonly known as the mountain goat.

“It is possibly the best and most complete mountaineer that ever existed on any continent,” the Whitefish-based writer and biologist wrote in the 2002 nonfiction book.

Similar to his well-known study of wolverines, Chadwick’s research provided a rare glimpse into the life of a mysterious, iconic species that calls this area home.

Just over a decade later, amid today’s changing environment and increasingly crowded landscape, a team of researchers is learning more about the so-called mountain monarchs by following select herds in Glacier National Park and studying their peculiar everyday lives.

Mountain Goat in Glacier National Park. Photo by ©Greg Lindstrom

A mountain goat along the Highline Trail in Glacier National Park on August 7, 2014. ©Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

The study, which launched in September 2013, is centered on the Logan Pass area, a place where visitors frequently run across mountain goats in and around the crowded visitor center and adjacent Highline Trail.

The national park is home to one of the largest populations of mountain goats in the lower 48, with an estimated 1,500-2,000 goats roaming the high-alpine environment.

Researchers are seeing an increased number of animals climbing down from their soaring perches and converging in populated areas such as Logan Pass.

Why? And to what impact?

The ultimate goal of the $150,000 project is to determine how roads, people and other modern mechanisms may be affecting the animals. The project is part of the comprehensive management plan being developed for the Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor, which is seeing increased congestion and usage in recent years as the park’s overall visitation rises. One of the main topics that emerged during public scoping was human-wildlife interactions within the corridor that were identified as an issue of concern, according to the NPS.

“Mountain goats are an icon of Glacier National Park and the information gathered from this study will play a valuable role in future management decisions,” Glacier National Park Superintendent Jeff Mow stated after the study launched.

The three-year project is a collaborative effort involving researchers from the National Park Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the division of biological sciences at the University of Montana.

The team started out by studying six goats and in August an additional group was collared. There are now 24 animals fitted with light GPS or radio collars. Seven of the animals are males and 17 are females.

The collars allow researchers to track the goats’ movements through data points in the park. Blood samples are also being taken periodically to check for parasites or other possible abnormalities, particularly in relation to the frequency of goats licking up antifreeze and other fluids splattered across the Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot.

Wesley Sarmento, a graduate student in the university’s wildlife biology program who is leading up the study as the principal investigator, said the team has already learned a lot about the animals and the possible impacts of human interactions.

Sarmento said the initial research has shown that certain goats in the Logan Pass area have become accustomed to humans and now the animals are staying closer to populated areas because of the frequency of salt and the safety from predators.

Goats are very attracted to sources of salt due to a deficiency in their diets as herbivores. Normally, the animals hover around natural salt licks in rocky areas, such as the Goat Lick along U.S. Highway 2. But over time, predators have cued into this fact and taken advantage. Sarmento and his team found a preponderance of skulls and carcasses of mountain goats at several natural salt licks.

As a reaction, mountain goats appear to have roamed toward safer locales, such as the Logan Pass area, where 2,000 to 3,000 people converge each day during summer. While providing safety from predators, these areas also have another attraction: human salt from visitors urinating.

“There’s all these people up there and not everyone can hold it. So these trails are turning into linear salt licks,” said Mark Biel, a member of the research project and the natural resources program manager for Glacier Park.

“We’ve actually seen goats follow after people who are going to urinate. These goats are very salt-driven.”

Another noticeable change involves the well-known fact that mountain goats live in steep, rocky terrain. The main reason that the animals have historically scaled extreme alpine areas is to find safety.

“When wild goats need to feed, they’ll come off cliffs, but not very far,” Sarmento said. “All goats have to come away from cliffs eventually, but habituated goats stay off the cliffs.”

Habituated goats are also roaming further away from their traditional habitat and becoming less paranoid of their surroundings, Sarmento said.

Wild goats tend to stay close to cliffs and in larger herds. But these habituated goats appear less worried about predators and are staying in smaller herds, sometimes even traveling solo, which is relatively unnatural, Sarmento said.

“There’s a huge difference between the two types of goats. These are really interesting results. Pretty much people are providing salt and providing safety, and it’s causing massive redistributions of where goats are living near Logan Pass,” he said.

The research is also looking at possible impacts from climate change. Mountain goats, with their distinctive white coat, tend to live in extreme alpine environments, such as the craggy range along Glacier Park’s upper regions.

Researchers are studying the animals’ reactions to temperatures, weather and snow fields that are dwindling in many areas.

“We trying to figure out when the days get hotter, how do the goats cope with that?” Sarmento said.

The study is slated to be completed by July 2016 with field notes and final reports being published.