Mountain goats truly inhabit a world apart. They are a rarely seen species that most folks will only view as white specks traversing sheer rock faces along the coastal mountains or Rockies.
It’s goat country, a land of great towering swaths of rock, a cold, barren, windswept land of snow and glaciers, a land resistant to the passing of time as any place on this planet and one of the last frontiers on earth that man hasn’t directly impacted.
It’s a species of which we have limited knowledge of their behavior patterns. Their population ranges anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 in North America, but is hard to estimate due to the rugged and remote terrain they live in. It is believed more than 70 per cent of these mountain goats live in BC.
Over the many seasons in the mountains we’ve been lucky to experience many encounters with these quite playful and excitable animals, who Captain Cook suggested were a variety of polar bear. Spending more than a month this past season in the alpine and glacier habitat, we had our usual population of grizzlies feeding on the south-facing slopes, accompanied by the usual compliment of wolverines, marmots, porcupines, and more mountain goat encounters than you could shake a stick at.
We started out in the grey light of morning on Aug. 1, traversing the west-facing ridge of Snow Cap Mountain. At about 8,000 feet we crossed paths with a juvenile billy headed in the opposite direction; it was the direction that he had come from that interested us, and following the ridge below us we came to a level area with three small tarns just below the lip of the glacier. Skirting the tarns we noticed two nannies with their kids and a juvenile billy on the same ridge that we saw the other billy.
It was at least another hour before the sun broke over the peak, but our patience paid off as the sun triggered the goats’ breakfast bell. They wandered up in our direction towards the feed around the lakes. We quickly moved down into the bowl where we set up with the sun to our backs. Instead of the six goats we were expecting, we were inundated with more than 30 goats from three different herds.
It was two hours of monkey business as there were several anti-parallel posturing which is a head to butt circling, a typical fighting posture. Goats have thicker skin on their posteriors to deal with the butting. There was lots of staring down, another form of passive aggression; some of the goats wandered our way to stare us down. Usually these conflicts arise when goats enter another’s personal space (an average of eight feet from their head), but more than 90 per cent of them end without contact.
Usually you don’t see the mature billys with the herd until mating season, but that morning there were three mature billys, including Goliath, named by the local climbers, At more than 300 pounds of brute force he stood out, a 10-year-old in his prime.
After years of hearing about but never seeing Goliath, it was awesome watching the boss in action. On a number of occasions the other billys crouched down like a cat sneaking up on its prey with his chin up and horns back, a posture in goat language denoting inferiority to a superior when approaching Goliath. This posture is also a court ship posture.
As mid morning came upon us the herds separated, wandering to their preferred glacier to remain cool.
On the second last day in the mountains, as we leaned back having a coffee before sunrise, a billy wandered up over the ledge, stared us down, then wandered off, but quickly changed direction and came straight for me. We couldn’t believe our eyes when he head butted me lightly on my foot, and I could only laugh as he wandered off. We surmised my white beard gave me honorary goat status.
After a month of pure enjoyment in the mountains, we could only question the description of the goats’ habitat as a cold and barren landscape. As we sat watching the evening news describing humans killing humans, and more humans killing humans, the mountains were warm and cuddly compared to the petty and nasty nature of man.
Lawrence Woodall is a longtime naturalist who has spent much of his life in the outdoors.