In this blog article, we’re heading high into the mountains of Alaska to have a look at the mysterious and elusive mountain goat. Out of all the large land-dwelling mammals of North America, mountain goats have been one of the least studied. True to their name, mountain goats live in rugged, often highly treacherous mountainous terrain, making them one of the most dangerous animals in North America to pursue. Mountain goats are present in Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado, South Dakota, Montana, and the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, but in Alaska, you’ll find them in the coastal areas of the state as well as in the southeastern and south-central regions.
From a distance, mountain goats are commonly confused with Dall sheep, especially their young, however, while there are many similarities between the two, and there are some locations where you’ll find both, Dall sheep usually don’t live in coastal areas, as they prefer drier habitat.
Mountain Goat Identification
Both male and female mountain goats develop long, rather skinny black horns and brilliant white fur, which grows very think in the winter, and is shed during the warmer months. While both male goats (referred to as Billies) and females (called Nannies) look very similar, there are some notable differences. Billies typically get much larger than nannies, about 40% larger, in fact. The average Billy weighs around 150 to 200 pounds, but can grow to more than 300 pounds, with the largest male mountain goat on record weighing in at a whopping 385 pounds! The average mature female goat, on the other hand, commonly weighs around 150 pounds but can grow to 250 pounds.
It can be very challenging to tell the difference between male and female mountain goats, especially from a distance, and even though adult male goats are larger and stockier than females, body size alone is not always an accurate indication. In some goat herds an old, mature female will easily be the largest one among them. Evaluating the size and shape of the horns is a more precise means of identifying a male from a female goat.
While the horns of an average adult female can be just as long as those of an adult male, nannies have thinner horns which have a distinct curve about two thirds of the way to the tips, whereas the males have much thicker horns, especially that base, which curve more gradually.
Mountain goats mate during the months of October through early December and the males can end up traveling for many miles while looking for prospective females. The five to ten-year-old males do most of the breeding, and like other species of large, land-dwelling mammals, can get into serious battles which can result in injury, or even death. However, mountain goats are also extremely tough critters, as they are believed to have an extra coagulant factor in their blood that helps them survive and heal from wounds that would easily kill other animals.
Baby mountain goats, known as “kids,” are born in the spring, usually during the month of May and Nannies typically give birth to only one kid, however, twins do sometimes occur. After the females give birth, usually in very rugged, hidden, isolated areas of the mountains, the nannies and their kids join up with other females and their offspring to form nursery groups, while the mature males tend to stay either alone, or with small bachelor groups. Kids stay with their moms until the next breeding season comes around and sometimes even for a few years thereafter.
Mountain Goat Diet and Population
Mountain goats feed on a variety of berries, lichen, shrubs, sedges, and similar plants and vegetation and will move to different elevations in the mountains at different times of year to find available food sources.
The mountain goat population in Alaska is estimated to be around 24,000–34,000 goats, with harsh winters being one of the biggest threats to their overall survival, and since mountain goats have fairly low reproduction rates, as the mothers don’t breed until they’re around 4 years old or so, it can take a while for goats to rebound after a severe winter. Along with brutal winter weather, wolves and bears can also take a toll on mountain goat populations, especially in areas where there are large numbers of such predators. Despite the challenging life that mountain goats can end up living, the typical life span is around 12 to 15 years in most areas.
So there you have it, that’s a quick overview of the mighty mountain goat. To watch the video version of this blog article, click here.
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(Sources: Personal experience and observation, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.)