For the week of April 7, 1999  thru April 13, 1999  

Do not disturb

Mountain goats need all their remaining energy to survive the spring thaw

Express Staff Writer

a7goat.jpg (18210 bytes)These signs let people know when they are heading into the goats’ wintering territory. (Express photo by Greg Stahl)

Leaning over her powerful spotting scope, hair whipping wildly in the wind, Cathy Baer keenly scans the snow-encrusted slopes of the Boulder Mountains.

"Goat viewing is really a Zen-like activity," she says. "It requires a lot of patience."

Baer is the program director of the Sawtooth Wildlife Council, and last Thursday, along with Forest Service wildlife biologist Robin Garwood, she was spotting for mountain goats in an ongoing effort to chart their winter habitat.

April is a critical time for the goats, Baer says. Any extra effort they use to survive is likely to deplete their fat stores to dangerous, even deadly, levels.

Unfortunately, when humans share the goats’ alpine habitat, stress on the animals increases. And with advances in recreation equipment, combined with spring’s solid snowpack, backcountry areas have become increasingly accessible to humans.

Those potential conflicts sparked the collaboration between the Forest Service and the Stanley-based Sawtooth Wildlife Council four years ago.

"We hope to be able to document if it’s as much of a problem as we suspect it is," Garwood says. "We know that goats lose weight through the winter just to maintain their internal body temperature. Disturbance can cause them to stress and burn precious calories. If this happens repeatedly, the goats may lack the reserves to survive to spring."

According to information gathered in the study, goats are specific about where they winter, returning to the same areas annually. Generally, those areas consist of wind-scoured slopes, southern exposures or avalanche-swept chutes. The thin snows—and therefore easily accessible food sources—that persist in those places in the spring are the selling point for the goats.

Because of the goats’ habitual wintering demeanor, crucial areas can be identified and avoided, Baer says. A half-mile buffer between wintering goats and human visitors will give the animals the security they need.

Key wintering areas have been pinpointed in the White Cloud, Sawtooth, Boulder, Pioneer and Smoky mountains. The several hundred mountain goats living in those rugged ranges constitute the southernmost populations of the animals in North America.

Helicopter skiing has been banned in the Boulder Mountain and Owl Creek areas to protect the wintering goats; however, for all other recreationists, officials are leaving the lion’s share of the responsibility up to those who enter the backcountry.

Education is key to protecting the goats, Baer says. The public is invited to learn about the winter ways of this alpine dweller and to voluntarily avoid intruding upon and disturbing them. Skiers and climbers can stop at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area headquarters north of Ketchum to get current information on goat locations.

"No one wants to harm mountain goats," she says. "We believe that once folks are aware of the needs of this unique creature, they will respect the very few places essential to them."

As part of public education efforts, the Sawtooth National Forest, Blaine Country Recreation District and the Sawtooth Wildlife Council are cooperating on a project to construct two permanent mountain goat viewing and interpretive sites.

One is slated for construction at Billy’s Bridge on State Highway 75, 12 miles north of the SNRA headquarters. The other is to be built near Galena Lodge.

The sites would be open year-round, have permanent spotting scopes and explain to people how to recreate harmlessly in goat wintering areas.

They would be funded by donations and a $10,000 matching grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Organizers hope to have $20,000 for construction within the next few years.

Adjusting her spotting scope, Baer locates a group of four goats, feeding from grasses on a south-facing slope of the Boulder Mountains’ Silver Peak. Something prompts the animals to move to higher ground, and they scurry up a rocky slope.

"Their behavior is so interesting," Baer beams. "They’re animals worthy of our consideration."


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