Though mountain goat populations appear stable at the moment, scientists and conservationists have started to worry about the growing rate of backcountry recreationists impinging on the goats' territory.
Mountain goats live where no other large animal can—on sheer, vertical rock faces high above the valley floor. They turn to this rugged terrain for safety, using their suction cup-shaped hooves and ability to find the smallest foothold to escape less agile predators such as wolves and cougars.
"They can run on places where I would be freaked out, and I live in that country," said Ed Cannady, Forest Service recreation technician and avid backcountry skier. "Where humans are thinking, 'I just need to survive this,' goats are right at home."
Part of the concern regarding the impacts of recreationists on mountain goats is that the animals' winter habitat is extremely limited. Mountain goats seek out the most remote, wind-blown slopes in the winter, said Robin Garwood, a wildlife biologist for the Sawtooth National Recreation Center, as they have trouble trudging through deep snow.
Unfortunately, this greatly limits the available winter range.
"They get confined to these areas, since they can't get off [ridges] when faced with deep snow," Garwood said.
That poses a problem when recreationists meet goats and startle them, forcing them to attempt to struggle through deep snow that the animals generally avoid. Cannady said the encroachment of backcountry recreationists on goat habitat, and the resulting intense caloric burn by goats running to escape them, could harm the rate at which goats reproduce.
"The kids in their first winter are extremely vulnerable," he said. "When they start having to flee from backcountry snowmobilers or skiers, intuitively, on its face, you know it decreases their chance of survival."
Cannady added that a pregnant nanny goat will sometimes reabsorb a fetus when under stress, further hampering the goats' population growth.
Regan Berkeley, a wildlife biologist with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said mountain goat populations in the area have been stable, with roughly 100 goats in the Pioneer Mountains alone and hundreds more in the mountains on either side of state Highway 75. But she said she wanted to study the exact effect of recreationists on mountain goats, placing GPS collars on some goats while tracking recreationists through GPS as well.
By comparing the tracks of recreationists with the goats' movements, she said, she would be able to see whether goats changed their ranges or intentionally avoided certain recreation-heavy areas.
"What prompted [a study] for me was doing winter surveys with a helicopter," she said. "A few years ago, I noticed that some drainages where I would see a lot of ski tracks, I wouldn't see goats."
Berkeley said she hopes to piggy-back on a similar study Garwood is working on with wolverines, who may similarly be threatened by recreationists. By the 2012-13 winter season, Berkeley said she hopes to find the funding for several radio collars and the time to capture and collar several goats, whose tracks she can then compare with recreation data collected by Garwood.
"It's a little bit of an unknown how detrimental or not winter recreation is," Garwood said. "It's one thing to look at."
The U.S. Forest Service has posted notices in certain areas to alert users that they maybe disturbing mountain goats, and Garwood said heli-ski operators have had to limit operations in some areas.
"They have been really good cooperators with us," she said. "They don't want to harm the goats either. It's all about co-existing."
Cannady said the Forest Service is certainly not suggesting that all recreationists stay out of high-elevation backcountry terrain, but that skiers and snowmobilers should make sure to keep an eye out for nervous mountain goats.
Whatever the costs in time, funds or limited restrictions on recreation, Garwood said, studying goats is well worth it.
"They're amazing animals, taking advantage of a niche that other animals can't take advantage of," she said. "The fact that they are able to live where no other animal can, that's admirable."
Wolverine study funded
The U.S. Forest Service hopes to enlist the help of local backcountry skiers and snowmobilers in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area this winter in a study to correlate their movements with that of denning wolverines.
The agency has awarded a grant to SNRA wildlife biologist Robin Garwood to conduct the two-year study. The work will also be funded by the South Central Idaho Resource Advisory Committee.
Garwood and her staff will begin distributing GPS armbands on trailheads throughout the SNRA this winter, and compare those tracks with ones left by radio-collared wolverines.
Regan Berkeley, wildlife biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said she hoped to use the recreation data collected by the armbands to assist with a possible study of recreation impacts on mountain goats.
Katherine Wutz: email@example.com