In the autumn of 2018, mountain goats in the Olympic Peninsula made the news for a rather unusual reason. Park officials in Olympic National Park worked with the USDA Forest Service and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to remove mountain goats from the park and transport them to the North Cascade Mountains; this effort included, in some form, goats securely dangling from helicopters. It is a rather funny sight to see!
These mountain goats aren’t native to the Olympic Peninsula; in fact, they were apparently introduced to the area in 1925 to be game for local hunters. Some of the goats were brought in from British Columbia; others came from Alaska. And while many hunters did kill their fair share of these goats, the population on the Peninsula eventually grew from about a dozen in 1925 to around 1,175 in the early 1980s.
These introduced goats started to cause problems, especially when there were people around. One problem has been wallowing, a naturally occurring behavior in many mammals that involves rolling around in the dirt. While fine in regular patches of dirt, the mountain goats in the forests of the Olympic Peninsula have disturbed archaeological sites. Plus, the goats have also trampled and eaten many native plants, including some that are only found in Washington state.
But the most dangerous problem has been goat and human interaction along hiking trails. Humans are, with all our flaws, walking salt pillars in the eyes of mountain goats and over the years, many goats have lost their usual wariness around us. There have, sadly, been a few interactions that have resulted in people being injured by the goats and at least one person died after being struck with a goat’s horns.
There are parts of the Pacific Northwest where mountain goats are native, including the North Cascades where some goats from the Olympic Peninsula have been moved to. In the North Cascades, mountain goats are well adapted to the harsh conditions and often climb cliffs to avoid predators. This ability to traverse cliffs has made it difficult for park officials to capture a few goats over the decades.
While they are called goats, mountain goats are actually members of the antelope family! They spend most of their days lounging and foraging for food like grasses, shrubs, huckleberry, and lichen. Survival is a struggle for these goats, as things like avalanches, predators (cougars, golden eagles), falls, parasites, and harsh conditions all cause fatalities or stress for these goats. If they survive past their first two years of life, mountain goats have a lifespan of about 10 years in the wild.
If you do come across a mountain goat while climbing or hiking, it might be tempting to get closer to see them. But as mentioned, interactions with goats don’t always go well and it’s best to keep your distance from them. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has a few recommendations if you are hiking in areas where mountain goats are known to be and the National Park Service has their own page about goat safety.
Like with any wild animal, it’s essential to keep your distance from wild mountain goats. If goats start to come near, do your best to try and scare them away (like yelling or even throwing rocks). The Washington DFW and National Park Service both recommend peeing at least 50 yards away from the trails (as goats like the salt left in urine…). Avoid hiking alone in case an interaction does happen. Hiking, in my opinion, is a great activity to do with others for many reasons and in case of any sort of injury, hiking partners can help out! Lastly, it’s always good to either have your dog on leash or within sight and under complete voice control.
Mountain goats are, like many other wild animals, are a wonderful part of the ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest. While they are causing issues on the Olympic Peninsula, there are other parts where they’re native to and many folks are working to help the population in the North Cascades grow while protecting the ecosystem on the peninsula.