Nature Notes

Ashford, Washington

Vol. II October-December 1987 No. 14

Nature Notes is issued by the Naturalist Staff of Mount Rainier National Park. Material contained herein may be used freely in any manner, provided credit is given to this pamphlet and the author.
William F. Dengler
Chief Park Naturalist
Neal G. Guse

MOUNTAIN GOAT (Oreamnos americanus)

There is, say the psychologists, a very thin line between intellectual brilliance and madness, between clear personal insight and raging masochism. In our arrogance we once thought such psychological pigeonholes were strictly human. But what, then, about the Mountain Goat? Is he a savvy opportunist who has adapted to one of the safest habitats known, or is he a wild-eyed nut with a mentality akin to that of certain downhill skiers, who love to punish themselves?

Take the Mountain Goat's habitat. Nobody else will. And there's good reason the goat has his rocky crags and cliffs above treeline all to himself; they're virtually uninhabitable. His rubbery little black hooves finding toeholds in what looks like plate glass, the goat scrambles straight up sheer cliffs. He perches on ledges too narrow to accommodate all four cloven feet.

Eschewing the comfort of close forests, Momma gives birth to her one or two kids on some secluded crag too constricted to stretch out on. In a few days the woolly little (about seven pounds) newborn is sturdy enough to join a nursery group of nannies and kids. Within weeks the agile youngsters can follow anywhere the mothers go--straight up; straight down.

And the weather...! Lambing (yes, lambing; "kidding" is what takes place constantly between members of the MORA naturalist staff) occurs between April and June, when winter is still trying to prove itself boss above treeline. Ice and snow that drives nearly every other animal off the mountain heights simply shoos the goats to somewhat lower crags temporarily. And yet, the person who knows where to look and what to look for can see goats on Goat Rock, elevation less than 4 000 feet, most months of the year.

So what, pray tell, do these goats eat in such rocky, barren environs? You know how to look up at a cliff face and see tiny green clumps of wildflowers, or grasses, or stunted bushes growing in nooks and crevices? That. And moss. Goats are almost the only herbivores that can reach some of that stuff; pikas could, probably, but the vulnerable little pikas much prefer the safety of talus slopes to the exposure of crag-hopping.

Moss and scattered plants are hardly a rich diet to sustain a major mammal three feet high and five feet long, weighing 130 to 300 pounds, particularly when that mammal must maintain body temp in wind, wet, and cruel cold.

Obviously the mountain goat is a masochist of the first water, a self-flagellator on a downhill skid to the loony bin...or is he?

There may not be much food in his mountain crags, but that food supply is not exploited by any other major animals. He's got what there is pretty much to himself.

So rarely do predators invade his mountain fastness, the goat has little need to be wary. Indeed, about the only way to catch a goat is to sneak down on it from above, with sharp eyes and ears it watches out below only, from whence come potential enemies. But the goat has almost no natural enemies, thanks to where it lives. Though eagles pick off a kid occasionally, and ice falls or avalanches pose some hazard, once a goat reaches majority it is virtually free of danger. No lowland ungulate is that secure.

A creature that recondite is impossible to see, right? Not so. Stop in the pullout a few miles west of Longmire on the mountain highway and scan Goat Rock above you to the northwest. Those little white blips are either snow patches or goats; watch for movement. Hike beyond Comet Falls soon after meltout. Not only are the falls spectacular, you'll see goats in the crags beyond Van Trump Park. From Nisqually Vista, check out Cushman Crest, the hillside beyond the glacier. On the east side, try Summerland or Fremont Lookout.

So. Is the Mountain Goat a masochist or a genius? He has deliberately chosen the most miserable and inhospitable of habitats, where no man has gone before because no man or beast wants to. And yet, in that fastness he dwells secure, casually strolling through life nibbling dainties on the way.

The pop psychologists should be so well adjusted.

Sandy Dengler

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