Mountain goats, masters of the high alpine

By Jack Souther,

Whistler Naturalists

There were about a dozen mountain goats in the group. Resting on ledges, upwind and just across a narrow couloir from me they continued to soak up the morning sun completely oblivious to my presence.

The sentry, a large shaggy female draped in the tattered remnants of her winter coat, stood guard on a rock above the others. A few more adults and several yearlings stared out from their narrow perches and a mother lay sprawled out in a dust pit. Head resting flat on the ground, ignoring her two frolicking kids, she scooped clouds of fine dust onto her body – luxuriating in the goat equivalent of a sauna.

The two kids, not much bigger than terriers and only a few weeks old, were already practising their survival skills. Bouncing off their mother's body they seemed to levitate onto nearby rocks where they scrambled, leapt, and butted in endless play.

Then they saw me – surprised stares, a moment of suspended alarm, waiting for the first one to make a move. They banded together moved away – slowly at first and then broke into a mad dash across the cliffs and out of sight.

This particular encounter took place on Mount Cayley but it’s a scene I’ve witnessed many times and on many different mountains in the course of my geological wanderings. Although mountain goats have moved away from the ski hills and more popular hiking areas around Whistler they have not gone far.

According to Karl Ricker, who has hiked the local mountains more than most of us, groups of goats regularly come down to mineral licks near the snout of Overlord Glacier, and he has seen them on the bluffs of Tremor and Trorey where the wind-swept, south-facing slopes provide winter forage.

Oreamnos americanus are only distantly related to true goats. In fact they are mountain antelope, superbly adapted to life on the steep slopes of the high alpine.

With short powerful legs, large hooves designed for traction, and a total indifference to precipitous heights, they can out-climb any other animal. But while their chosen habitat discourages predators it offers slim pickings for food. Both sexes jealously guard their feeding territories and, unlike the ritual head-butting of bighorn sheep, mountain goats use their sharp, stiletto-like horns to inflict real damage.

Females give birth after a six-months gestation and for most of the year they band together with immature animals in groups of up to 30.

During this time the males lead solitary lives or form loose bonds with a few other bachelors until the November breeding season when its every Billy for himself.

The males are polygamous and during the rut they mark out breeding territories with a musky secretion from a gland behind their horns. Territories are defended with fierce battles and, to further lure a mate, they regularly urinate and ejaculate onto their beards, thus enhancing the musky smell of their maleness – great climbers, fierce fighters, but definitely a bit quirky.

The Whistler Naturalists Society monthly birdwalk is this Saturday, July 5 with the Naturalists’ own Michael Thompson. It will start at 7 a.m. at the foot of Lorimer Road near the entrance to Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church.

We will go from there to Rainbow Park and back, one of the best birding routes in our valley. Karl Ricker saw a Wood Duck mother with ten ducklings here a few days ago! For those who wish more, there could be a second phase at the south end of Green Lake.


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