Whether kicking trolls off bridges in nursery rhymes or being iconic enough to warrant its own star sign, goats have secured their place in most cultures around the world. Few, however, are as fascinating as the mountain goat, which as its name suggests, is ideally suited for mountain life. These compact creatures likely started off in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau and eventually made their way to the North American continent, where they thrived.
What Does a Mountain Goat Look Like?
Mountain goats are about 3.5 feet tall, and they’re surprisingly heavy, usually between 100 and 300 pounds. Like many mountain species, they have white fur covering their bodies, and they also have relatively straight horns on top of their heads. If you look at their eyes, you’ll notice they have a large horizontal pupil, similar to sheep, deer and antelope.
Capricorn is the horned goat, but mountain goats are not members of the genus Capra, unlike every other goat out there. Instead, they have their own little genus: Oreamnos. This is because it’s not genetically similar enough to domestic/feral goats and ibexes due to several million years of separation. The key differences, aside from habitat, include thinner skulls and slimmer horns. They are closely related to musk ox and antelopes.
Finding a Mountain Goat
The other name of the mountain goat is the Rocky Mountain goat, which provides a bit of a hint to the area in which they can be found. These creatures live on the western half of Canada and the United States, typically in the Rocky Mountains, the Cascade mountain range and the surrounding foothills. They are exclusively herbivorous, eating whatever they can scrounge from the ground, usually moss, lichens and grasses, but they are capable of handling richer diets in captivity.
A group of mountain goats is known as a herd and can consist of up to 50 animals. These herds can roam a wide area, typically reaching higher latitudes in summer and lower latitudes in winter. Mating usually occurs in fall, with kids being born in the spring. A mountainside can be a surprisingly vicious place to live, and these goats will often attack suspected predators, including humans. Eagles, cougars, bears and lynxes are the primary predators of mountain goats, but goat horns are a surprisingly effective defense mechanism against these creatures. Goats can also live at higher altitudes than most of their predators, reaching heights of 13,000 feet quite happily.
Mountain goats are successful because they fulfil an unusual ecological niche, specializing in high-altitude living. They don’t crossbreed well with other animals — reports of a goat-sheep hybrid (a geep) are likely fanciful, and mountain goat-sheep hybrids are even less likely — so the bloodline tends to remain pure, unlike other bovids, such as yaks. In addition, they don’t tend to get in the way of humanity, so there’s relatively little habitat destruction.
Mountain Goats and Humans
That’s not to say that there aren’t problems with humans; as noted above, mountain goats can get aggressive with animals they perceive as predators, and humans are perhaps the ultimate apex predator on the planet. As more people wish to visit, climb and explore the mountains where these goats live, they leave behind what is, in mountain goat terms, a delicacy: urine. In Olympic National Park, for example, many goats have been forcibly evicted by helicopter because they developed a taste for this human byproduct. A roughly equal number are expected to have their membership in the mountain goat race cancelled, presumably by sniper.
Many mountain goats have a low-sodium diet, which is why they are attracted to places where people pee. Because peeing spots are often in quiet areas a little away from the main trail, mountain goats sometimes ambush unsuspecting hikers, who are not in the best position to run away. Other incidents have involved mountain goats blocking a car from moving — again so they could lick off the salt.
It’s generally impractical to domesticate mountain goats; they are simply too agile, and because they can easily climb steep slopes exceeding 60 degrees, it’s hard to keep them to one area. Their aggressiveness makes them unsuitable for domestication, as well.
Mountain goat meat is sometimes eaten, although it is reportedly quite tough, and their wool would have been collected by the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest, woven and traded. This wool could be mixed with feathers or even cedar cores to create extremely thick and warm blankets that were capable of withstanding low temperatures.
One key threat to mountain goats is resource extraction, as this tends to take place wherever there are valuable minerals to be found. Mountain goats tend to evacuate areas where humans start extracting minerals, which is in contrast to bighorn sheep. These goats don’t return for many years. Due to the inaccessibility of any of these sites, helicopters are used to transport personnel, and this can have a disruptive impact on these goats. Helicopters coming within 500 yards typically induced panic in most of the herd, and even helicopters a mile away would result in a strong reaction in a substantial minority of them. This also poses problems for the skiing, hiking and biking industries that have relied on helicopter access.
Mountain Goats in Pop Culture
Although mountain goats are a little bit too specific to be in most cartoons or to star in a film, there is a band called The Mountain Goats, which is based in North Carolina. One Sesame Street skit also had two trios of mountain goats meeting on a narrow mountain path, and neither group wanted to move back. Rather than use violence, they jumped over each other, with the moral that a little bit of creative thinking can sometimes create a solution that is mutually beneficial — until they meet the elephants also coming up that path.
Ultimately, mountain goats are a key niche species in the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades of North America. They convert poor-quality soil into slightly richer soil, and this allows high-altitude meadows to flourish. While they do not have a major impact on human life, the world would be a little poorer if this unusual species was gone.