Idaho biologists counted 57 mountain goats in the Idaho Selkirks in February, the first survey of the sure-footed bovids in that range since 2001.
In the winter, the goats head to steep and bare, rocky areas where snow has slid off, making it possible to spot them from the air. Idaho Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists took to the skies.
They flew south from the Canadian border to Harrison Lake in a Bell 47 “bubble ship,” IDFG biologist Laura Wolf said.
“We flew the survey area looking for the off-white fur of mountain goats or tracks in the deep snow,” she said. “Within each survey area, we fly contours usually starting at the lowest elevation and climbing to the top of the ridgeline. Very few other animals are hanging out where mountain goat live, so tracks are a good indication you have a goat or two to find.”
They counted 57 goats. In 2001, they surveyed 34 goats.
The survey was partly done in response to the public. IDFG offered one mountain goat tag between 2011 and 2018 in the Selkirk zone (Region 1). That hunting opportunity ended in 2019 as the state implemented a new goat management plan. Following that decision, Wolf said hunters “justifiably wanted updated data.”
Mountain goat populations grow slowly and are sensitive to hunting. For that reason, Idaho implemented a conservative management plan in 2019, Wolf said.
The new guidelines recommend a hunting season when there are 100 individuals with 15 kids per 100 adults in June. During the February flight, biologists estimated 13 kids per 100 adults.
Although much of the Selkirks might look like good goat habitat, she said that’s not the case. The piled snow on the crest of the range – called cornices – limits where the animals can live. Although she’s not sure of the region’s carrying capacity, historical accounts and estimates put the total number of goats at more than 200.
In addition to their naturally low recruitment, Wolf said a warming climate is stressing the animals and may lead to reduced populations. While a warmer climate may benefit them slightly in the winter with reduced snowpacks and more habitat, hot and dry summers are particularly devastating.
“Mountain goats seek out snow patches to cool off on hot days and when they are cooling off, they’re not foraging,” she said. “And while mountain goats eat a wide variety of plants, hot summers dry those plants out more quickly, and they may not acquire adequate fat stores before going into winter.”
Spotting 57 goats indicates the population has held steady and hasn’t been too disturbed by an expanding human population in the region, Wolf said.
“The Selkirk mountains is a unique ecosystem in Idaho than holds a large variety of wildlife species besides mountain goats (mule deer, elk, moose, wolverine, grizzly bear, lynx),” she said.
“It is a popular spot to recreate both in the summer and winter. But the presence of all these species means that there is quite a variety of habitat types, many of which are intact and provide connectivity.”
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