Mountain goats and their haunts at Goat Lick
A young mountain goat at Goat Lick in Glacier National Park. © David Reese photo
By DAVID REESE
Their noses down, a mountain goat nanny and her kid sniffed around the grey cliff wall for some unseen object.
Below them swirled a deep, swift pool of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. The goats followed a dark, moist seam in the river bank wall toward a spot where water trickled out of a crevice. There they stopped.
For mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) this is Mecca. They have arrived here at the Goat Lick, near Essex on the southern border of Glacier National Park, to replenish precious minerals used to digest the various plants they’ll eat this winter at higher elevations.
Goat Lick is a wide spot in the road between Essex and Bear Creek where people pull off the side of U.S. Highway 2 to get a closer look at mountain goats. There is also an observation platform and trail where you can watch goats scrambling along the multicolored clay banks.
Floating by on the river, though, you can get an even closer perspective on the animals, which Doug Chadwick researched for his book, “A Beast the Color of Winter.” Published in 1983, the book was the first in-depth look at mountain goats in Glacier National Park and the Swan Mountain Range. The book remains one of the only full-length references on mountain goats in the northern Rocky Mountains.
“A Beast the Color of Winter” was the first of nine wildlife books by Chadwick, a Whitefish-based author and wildlife biologist who also writes for National Geographic magazine.
From early spring through August, mountain goats can be found at Goat Lick, clambering among the steep cliff walls that spill directly into the rushing river below. The cliffs are a varied hue of purple, yellow, orange and grey. There are four major licks in Glacier National Park, but the one along the Middle Fork near Essex is the largest and most heavily used, according to the park service.
Years of erosion by the nearby river have exposed the minerals that the goats are looking for. The minerals include gypsum, kieserite and sulfates, as well as potassium, calcium and magnesium. Chadwick postulates that the goats store up these chemicals to digest certain plants in winter, like lichen, dried glasses and subalpine fur needles.
When cooler weather begins to set in, the goats set their goals on higher elevations and leave the lick behind — something that Chadwick still does not quite understand.
‘I assume that they’ve got the minerals they’re after, or their priority is bulking up on forage for winter,” he said. “I’ve never been able to separate it out, whether it’s the cooler weather or their metabolism cranks up.”
Fresh out of graduate school at the University of Montana with a degree in wildlife biology in hand, Chadwick was looking for something new to study — a species about which there were still things to be discovered. His curiosity for mountain goats was piqued by a study position available in Bunker Creek in the South Fork of the Flathead. He ran down to the library and got all the reference materials he could. “It added up to half an inch high,” Chadwick said. “There just wasn’t anything there.”
He got the position and subsequently spent four years in the Swan Mountains and three years in Glacier National Park, living among mountain goats in all seasons — something that had not been done before. All of the prior studies were summer studies, but no one had studied goats all year long, Chadwick said.
What also inspired Chadwick to study goats was the fact that they inhabit beautiful portions of our planet. “Let’s face it,” he said. “Goats hike great country … if you’re following them, you’re in a pretty darn nice part of the world.”
At the time he began his studies on mountain goats, the animals were in a steep decline in the northern Rocky Mountains, he said. At that time, hunting was still allowed on the animals, without a special permit. Now, hunters must apply for only a handful of permits that are allowed in Region One of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Part of what led to that decline, Chadwick said, is that previously unroaded areas were being tapped for logging and mining. “There was too much access and harvest was too high,” he said.
Now, he says, “Unless I’m missing something, it (the population) looks to be very stable.”
Since goats don’t have a high rate of reproduction (they don’t mature sexually until their third or fourth year, and they rarely have twins), “they eventually hit the wall,” he said. “But nobody knew that at the time.”
Maybe what discouraged other biologists from studying mountain goats in winter was the fact that, well, it was so darn cold. Mountain goats sport thick coats of fur and are able to withstand extremely cold temperatures, said Chadwick, who studied them in Glacier National Park in temperatures down to minus 40.
Mountain goats in winter seek out feeding areas that are relatively free of snow. That means the terrain they live in during winter is the nastiest, wind-blown terrain in Glacier Park, and that means there’s limited vegetation. In order to have enough food to go around, the animals keep their average herd size down to two to five animals, Chadwick said. “Their strategy as a herd is to stay small so they don’t eat each other out of house and home. They eat anything,” Chadwick said. “A group of two to five goats can get through a tough stretch of winter. They probably have the broadest diet of any of our four-legged critters up here.”
Chadwick has watched mountain goats look as comfortable in winter as they are lounging along the clay banks at Goat Lick. “Lying in that subzero temperature on a steep icy cliff,” he said, “they look like it was a day at the beach.
These guys are tough as nails; you can’t appreciate a mountain goat until you’re out there in January in 40 below weather on a cliff.”
Mountain goats defend their territory aggressively. Chadwick has watched mountain goats engage in battles on steep, icy cliffs during winter. “That didn’t seem like the most advanced survival strategy,” Chadwick said after having witnessed animals being bounced off cliff faces or into rivers. “There’s a lot of sorting out of dominance and the fittest nannies end up in the prime (feeding) areas,” Chadwick said.
AFTER THE NANNIES give birth to their kids in early June, they’ll wait until the young ones are old enough to make the journey from the mountaintops, down through the subalpine forests to the river bottom at Goat Lick. “They don’t bring them down until the kids are strong and fast enough to keep up with mom,” Chadwick said. It’s a danger that Chadwick has witnessed by the animals’ countenance as they move out of higher elevation through the terrain of predators like mountain lion, bears.
As they journey toward Goat Lick they appear much more defensive, he said. They don’t have their usual escape routes and can’t use their agility to their advantage. “Goats are not comfortable away from a cliff face,” Chadwick said. “It’s a dangerous area for them.”
Goats also come out of the nearby Great Bear Wilderness to lap up the minerals at Goat Lick, he said.
Now, with temperatures beginning to drop, it’s time for the goats to leave Goat Lick behind and prepare for winter. “They got what they needed,” Chadwick said. “It’s time for them to turn full attention to getting fat for winter.”
Mountain goats are able to literally stick to the sides of steep cliff faces. That’s not because — as some tourists might believe — their uphill legs are shorter than the others or they have suction cups for hooves. Their ability to climb is due to the fact that mountain goats have hooves that can spread apart wider than bighorn sheep or deer, and are able to pinch them together, making a foothold out of a tiny knob. They also have massive forequarters. “They’re not built for speed,” Chadwick said “but they can out-climb anything.”
Chadwick’s ninth book will be released next spring. It’s a look at five whale species around the world.
He still enjoys watching mountain goats, the token symbol of Glacier National Park. “My jaw still drops at their climbing maneuvers,” he said. “Their mountaineering skills are just awesome.”
This article appeared in the summer 2006 issue of Montana Living magazine.