Identifying Vulnerable Mountain Goat Populations

By Kiana Young (NPS, Trent University), Tania Lewis (NPS), Kevin White (ADF&G), and Aaron Shafer (Trent University)

Are there populations of mountain goats within Glacier Bay National Park and Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park that are vulnerable due to small numbers and isolation?

Dates

Fieldwork will be conducted March–September 2019 and 2020

Did You Know?

Mountain goat standing on rocky hillside
Mountain goat standing on rocky hillside

NPS

  • Mountain goats are alpine specialists, meaning that they spend the majority of their time on and are highly adapted to steep, rocky mountains.
  • Landscape features such as wide valley floors, glacial-covered mountains, and fjords can act as barriers to gene flow in mountain goat populations.
  • Mountain goats are especially vulnerable to changes in their habitat caused by climate change. They rely on the cool temperatures and accessible alpine habitat, both of which are prone to change in the future.

Introduction

Adult mountain goat
Adult mountain goat

NPS

Mountain goats are the only alpine ungulate found in Glacier Bay National Park (GLBA) and Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park (KLGO), and are a popular viewing species for visitors to the parks. They specialize in steep, rocky habitats, high up in the alpine zones of mountains. Recent aerial surveys in both parks showed a decline in several mountain goat populations. Mountain goats are subject to increased mortality from disease, hunting pressure outside of park boundaries, lowered winter survival, and habitat degradation due to climate change. They are also susceptible to disturbance from airplanes, helicopters, and land-based recreation. Neither park has information on the genetic population structure and connectivity of mountain goats within their boundaries. With upcoming plans to update the backcountry management plan in GLBA and KLGO, it is important that the parks are aware of how changes to use of the backcountry might affect these mountain goats.
 
Southeast Alaska is dominated by wide fjords, glacier-covered mountains, and wide valley floors, so mountain goats populations can be genetically isolated and especially vulnerable to disturbances because genetic variability is low. Populations with low genetic variability are less likely to be capable of adapting to changes in their environment quickly. Knowledge of the population size and genetic structure of mountain goats will help determine which populations may be at risk .
 
This project is a collaborative effort between state and federal agencies. The goal of this study is to identify vulnerable populations of mountain goats within the park so that the park can make informed management decisions when designing upcoming backcountry management plans and predict the impact that climate change will have on the populations. The following questions will be investigated in this study:
1. What is the genetic population structure, abundance, and effective population size of specific populations of mountain goats in Glacier Bay?
2. Which populations in the park are vulnerable due to low genetic diversity and/or small actual and effective population size?
3. If genetically isolated mountain goat populations exist, what is their risk in regards to changes due to climate change?

Methods

Each park (GLBA and KLGO) has several study sites where mountain goat genetic material will be non-invasively collected.  We will conduct aerial surveys both to obtain a population estimate well as to determine where the mountain goats are located within each study sites. Once we know where the mountain goats are, we will conduct ground surveys to collect fecal samples in each study area. This is done by observing where mountain goats are feeding and resting and then retrieving samples soon after the goats leave the area. Pellet samples will be swabbed and placed in a solution as well as collected whole and placed in a sterile, sealable plastic bag. Along with the sample collection, we will also record the date, study site name, and a GPS location.
 
DNA from the fecal samples will be extracted and analyzed in a genetics lab following each field season. The results will help us determine the number of migrants both within the park sites and between the park site and the surrounding area, the effective population size, and the genetic structure within the population.
 
Using the genetic data, we will run a series of simulations to predict the trajectory of vulnerable mountain goat populations under varied disturbance scenarios. We will synthesize knowledge about geographic barriers, proposed development (including trails and infrastructure) and simulations of the effects of climate change induced habitat changes on genetic diversity of mountain goats to develop adaptive management recommendations for goat populations in KLGO and GLBA. After determining the genetic structure of mountain goat populations in GLBA and KLGO, we will develop a genetic database for the two areas and a report detailing mountain goat effective population size estimates, genetic baseline information, population demographics, and adaptive management recommendations.
 
 

Study Sites

Map showing highlighted study sites for mountain goat research
Study sites at GLBA

NPS

Map highlighting locations for mountain goat research
Research locations at KLGO

NPS

Want to Help?

If you are planning on hiking in the mountains of Glacier Bay or Klondike Gold Rush and are interested in helping out with this project, contact the principal investigators for directions and a sampling kit.
 
Kiana Young (March-August): 907-697-2565; Kiana_Young@nps.gov,
Tania Lewis (year-round): 907-697-2668; Tania_Lewis@nps.gov