BY JANET GEORGE
A hunter must earn the privilege of experiencing the rugged grandeur of mountain goat country. Each rocky step makes you more appreciative of the mountain goat’s perseverance in a world of extremes. Extreme terrain, extreme wind and extreme cold all combine to make goat country one of the most spectacular and severe environments in North America.
Such extremes have molded the mountain goat, as author/biologist Douglas Chadwick dubbed “a beast the color of winter.” And there is no more appropriate name for an animal that lives in a niche where winter is eight months long and blizzards can hit anytime during the other four. Everything about this beast, from its snow-white coat and wide, sharp-edged hooves that cling equally well to sheer rock or slick ice to their cool demeanor, are products of a mountain niche. Mountain goat behavior is often mistaken for naivety by hunters, but a beast that lives on ice-covered cliffs cannot be as jumpy as a woodlot whitetail and survive.
No other big game species in North America is as synonymous with public lands as Oreamnos americanus. Look at the mountain goat distribution map in any state or province and it will almost surely fall within public domain. Draw the tag and you won’t have to worry about land access – just whether you are up to the environment.
My first chance to hunt the white beast was a mid-October hunt in Colorado’s Byers Peak Wilderness and the adjacent Fraser Experimental Forest. In terms of Colorado mountain goat habitat, Byers Peak Wilderness was at moderate elevation with the highest peak at 12,800 and most goats living from 11,000-12,500 feet. An October snow storm worried me. The elk hunters would be wishing for a good snow to move the elk down to more accessible slopes, but snow would not budge the white beast from its alpine stronghold.
Luck smiled on the goat hunters that October. After a three-mile hike, I set up my camp near an 11,500-foot-high alpine lake the day before season opened. The trails were dry and the tundra a dusty brown. I didn’t see any goats in the basin that evening, so at first light on opening day I climbed to the 12,000-foot ridgetop above the lake. I glassed most of the morning and saw my friend Nancy arrive at camp below around noon to help with my hunt. Later, I spotted a lone billy along the ridgeline, made a crouched stalk across the tundra to 35 yards, raised up while drawing my recurve bow and put an arrow in his ribcage on a sunny, calm day.
The following year, Nancy drew a mountain goat license for the same season and unit, but the weather was the extreme opposite from my hunt. Nancy had all her gear ready the day before the season opened, and we planned to pack in together to the same campsite. With only hours to go before launch, a winter storm engulfed Colorado’s northern mountains. From our northern Front Range homes, it was hard to tell how bad the storm really was, but one look at a webcam in a town near the hunting area showed heavy snow driven by stout winds. We agreed to wait until the storm cleared. The following day showed clear skies, so we drove to the trailhead in six inches of snow on the valley bottom road. As we hiked the three miles and 1,000-plus feet in elevation to the lake, the snow deepened. There was about a foot to clear before setting our tents at the same campsite where the previous year there was bare dirt and brittle, brown grass.
Since season was already open, after camp was set we climbed to the ridgeline to find a stiff, cold 30-plus mph wind. It was tough to hold binoculars steady while glassing, so we hunkered down behind boulders and were able to spot a lone billy on a rocky slope and move within 350 yards. Nancy, who is a competent shooter, got prone behind her .270 and sighted on the goat. After minutes of watching and fighting the wind, Nancy said it was too far in the gusty wind. The billy was on an open slope, but Nancy was game to try a stalk. After an hour for detouring below the ridgeline and then slowly sliding down the hill above the billy, we arrived within 100 yards of the spot to find no goat.
Shadows lengthened and the temperature dropped as we hiked back to camp, where we “cooked” a freeze-dried dinner and shimmied into our sleeping bags to wait for morning. Nancy made the wise decision to put the water filter into the bottom of her sleeping bag to keep it from freezing.
This was one time I wished I had a thermometer to see just how cold it was when we woke. The water filter had frozen – even in the sleeping bag. Needing water for coffee and oatmeal, we thawed the filter and broke a hole through the ice in the nearby creek. At least the wind was not blowing. A delayed start was fine since mountain goats are active and visible during daylight hours.
We climbed back to the ridgeline above camp, detouring around windblown snowdrifts. The sun and the climb warmed us. The wind during the storm had blown the ridgelines clear of snow, easing our travel. Upon reaching the top we spotted a small group of mountain goats a few hundred yards away. Nancy stalked to within 75 yards and dropped her goat instantly with a single shot.
Mountain goats are not really goats at all. Nor are they an only child like the pronghorn, with a taxonomic classification all its own. But, like the pronghorn, mountain goats are unique to North America and a one-of-a-kind species. Their closest relatives are the serows and gorals of Asia and the more well-known chamois of Europe. These species are in the Bovidae family (cattle, sheep, goats and antelope) and within the tribe Rupicaprini, which are regarded as goat antelopes because they possess traits of both – thin-boned skulls and short, dagger-like horns that are of similar size in both sexes. The serow-like ancestor of the mountain goat crossed to North America via the Bering Land Bridge during the Pleistocene about 40,000 years. Over time, mountain goats adapted to climbing rocks and surviving North American arctic, alpine climates to become a unique species that resembles no other in the world.
When hunting, take great care on the terrain where you take the shot. Mountain goats have relatively fragile horns and skulls compared to mountain sheep and true goats. My first goat rolled downhill and broke several inches off one horn. Wait to take a shot until a mountain goat is on a relatively level bench or wide alpine saddle that is not adjacent to cliffs, and then be sure to place the shot to anchor the goat, like Nancy did. Goats are masters of the steep, broken terrain and know they are vulnerable when they leave it, so it’s not common to find them far from cliffs and talus.
Mountain goats are not tough to stalk when it comes to avoiding detection, but the terrain and elevation are the real challenge. I’ve been on four successful mountain goat hunts, either as the hunter or as a companion with my husband or friends, and no shot longer than 100 yards was needed. As I learned on my second goat hunt, just navigating the terrain to get to a place to start a stalk is the challenge.
On a 2015 hunt in central Colorado, I was hunting on Forest Service land where the elevation and terrain was more challenging than on my first goat hunt. Goats frequented elevations above 12,000 feet, and mountains topped out at over 13,000 feet, with one peak exceeding 14,000 feet. Scree and talus filled slopes below and between the cliffs interspersed with grassy benches. Nanny bands were often close to trailheads and a multitude of hikers, but mature billies hung back in the rugged trail-less drainages, even during my early-October season. I looked at a couple dozen goats each day during the first week but only saw one mature billy, which was in terrain impermeable to humans. He didn’t move more than a few hundred yards a day within the cliff fortress I named “The Billy Goat Keep.”
During the second week, I finally located three billies at first light in a roadless drainage where a friend’s husband had killed a large billy the previous year. Although the goats were only a mile away on a lateral, grassy tundra ridge with a gentle saddle, the most direct routes would either require technical climbing along the ridgelines or a potential ankle breaking (or worse) trek across scree and talus for a mile. The third alternative was to hike back down to the truck parked on the east side of the mountain range and drive around to the west side, then hike up through the timber and across the tundra coming from the opposite side. I could get to the billies by late afternoon, but I didn’t have time to get back off the mountain before dark, especially if I harvested a goat – so alternative 3.1 included a spike camp.
The weather was unseasonably warm and dry, so I could go light for an overnight bivy. After a 1,200-foot climb in less than a mile, I set up the spike camp at timberline near a creek. I took time to memorize the terrain features that would be notable in the dark. If I could find the creek, I could follow it down to the timberline camp. Luckily, there was an elk trail across a rock slide from camp that headed up toward the alpine saddle the goats had been on five hours earlier. I continued on from camp with a full water bottle – anticipating no water on the ridge – and my pack and rifle.
Camp was at 11,500 feet and the goats were last seen at 12,600 feet, so I climbed another 1,100 feet in three quarters of a mile on mostly open, grassy tundra. My legs were heavy from packing in camp and from the oxygen deficit. I slowed as I got to within 200 yards of where I’d seen the billies at first light and carefully continued, hoping they were still just on the other side of the saddle. After another 50 yards, I spotted the back of a goat. Sitting down, losing my pack and looking through my binoculars, I could see the backs of two feeding goats. I crawled forward on hands and knees for another 30 yards and belly crawled the last 20. Now I could see three billies standing. One was looking my way, undoubtedly suspicious of the unusual bump on the tundra. I ranged the largest bodied goat at 100 yards. He was broadside, and I was already prone behind my rifle. I chambered a round into the .280. At the shot, the billy jumped forward and laid down. Although the billy was mortally hit and on a rocky tundra saddle, it was less than 50 yards to a steep 600-foot roll to the bottom of the cirque. Knowing that if the goat got on its feet, it would use its last movements to go over the steep edge, I took a second quartering shot to anchor the goat where it lay.
In the fading October sun, I took a few minutes to admire the alpine master. Hair on October goats is brilliant and luxurious. I laid my rifle against the goat’s shoulder, and the stock disappeared into its hair. The six-inch-long guard hairs were soft and supple – much different that the short, bristly hair of elk, deer and bighorn sheep.
As big game animals go, mountain goat horns are not impressive in terms of size, or elaborately configured like mountain sheep or true goats. A small to medium goat’s horns are eight inches long, while a big one has 10-inch horns. It’s the hair on late season mountain goats and the meat that are the prize. Don’t believe any rumors that mountain goat meat isn’t good for the table. My husband and I have had the good fortune to harvest and eat four mountain goats and find the meat quite tasty.
I skinned and boned the goat, loaded the backstraps and shoulder meat into my pack, pulled out my trekking poles and started downhill as the sun slid behind the next mountain range to the west. Hiking down in the dim light and open tundra ridge was satisfying. I found the elk trail leading down off the ridge across the rocks toward camp in the last remaining light. It was dark by the time I reached the basin floor and timberline – doubly dark on a moonless night. My headlamp kept me from immediate troubles like tripping over logs or rocks, or walking into low branches. Distances seem to triple in the dark, but I kept walking toward where the creek should be. Finally I heard running water, found the creek and walked downstream to the base of the knoll where my tarp was pitched.
The night was surprisingly comfortable in my sparse camp. In the morning, after coffee and instant oatmeal, I climbed back to the goat and carried the rest of the meat and cape down to camp before taking two difficult but satisfying trips to bring camp and my goat down to the highway. New respect for the mountain goat, its mountain stronghold, my partners and myself have come from each mountain goat hunt I’ve had the opportunity to experience.
Additional Info: Getting a Tag
It can be a challenge to acquire a mountain goat license. Ten states and four provinces have enough mountain goats for hunting seasons. All mountain goat licenses in the contiguous states with huntable populations are limited in number and allocated by lottery. Odds are long in most cases, but there are some ways to improve your chances.
Over 75 percent of mountain goats live in British Columbia and Alaska, and both have licenses that can be purchased without a drawing. Nonresidents are required to hire a guide or hunt with a resident family member.
Apply for licenses in more than one state to increase your chances of getting a mountain goat license.
Many states raffle off one or more mountain goat licenses. Purchasing raffle tickets will increase your chances of getting a license, and the dollars raised go to improve habitat and management of the species.
Consider applying for later seasons in units with multiple seasons. More hunters want to be the first to hunt a unit, so drawing odds are better in second, third and fourth seasons.
Consider applying for a nanny-only license. Colorado and Utah have female-only mountain goat licenses, and the draw odds are much better than for either-sex licenses. Some Colorado nanny-only licenses offer a one in three chance of drawing. It is difficult to differentiate male and female mountain goats since they have similar sized horns. If you draw a nanny-only license, be sure to study gender identification. Utah requires nanny-only hunters to take an online class in mountain goat gender identification, and many states offer online materials to aid hunters in differentiating male from female mountain goats.
Watch for special hunts in mountain ranges and states where mountain goats are not native. Introduced populations can overgraze sensitive alpine plants and compete with native species like bighorn sheep. When mountain goat populations exceed objectives, liberal licensing for a year or two offers improved chances to draw a license.
BHA member Janet George has hunted and fished the backcountry for 40 years with family and friends and sometimes solo. She recently retired as a wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife to fly fish all 45-plus lakes in the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. She lives north of Boulder with her husband and a Labrador retriever.
Suggested Further Reading:
A Beast the Color of Winter: The Mountain Goat Observed. By Douglas Chadwick. 1983. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco.
Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the American Mountain Goat. By Bruce L. Smith. 2014. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.
Mountain Goats: Ecology, Behavior, and Conservation of an Alpine Ungulate. By Marco Festa-Bianchet and Steeve D. Cote. 2008. Island Press. Washington, DC.
This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Backcountry Journal. Join BHA to get 4 issues a year right in your mailbox.