It’s the time of year when the sun shines longer. Patches of snow begin to regress toward the alpine and animals forced low by deep drifts and little food, begin to follow the snow line as it retreats from the sea level.
In the vicinity of the Mendenhall Glacier, drawn out from the cover of the forest, mountain goats have again graced the rocky outcroppings at the base of both Mount McGuiness and Mount Bullard.
Employees at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center have reported seeing billies, nannies and kids grazing at elevations that are ideal for viewing and photographing.
Laurie Craig, an interpreter at the visitor center, said the spottings have picked up over the last few weeks.
“The easiest place to see them is directly north of (Nugget Falls),” she said. “They’re doing perfect goat things — standing really upright on ledges, and then laying down and taking a nap.”
Of course, in Southeast and most places, mountain goats spend their summers in high elevations. But, said Kevin White, a wildlife research biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, goats make a migration in the winter down to lower elevations, which play host to food and shelter.
“Habitat selection is tied to steep, cliffy areas,” he said. “But in the winter, the best habitat is in forested areas because the canopy shields the forest floor, so there is more food available, it’s easier to move around, and they’re not expending a lot of energy plowing through snow.”
Around the glacier, where the snow first melts off the rocky faces and outcroppings, goats will emerge out of the forest because of the lack of snow cover. White said it’s typical to see animals in those locales this time of year.
“A week or two ago, we saw 12 goats between Nugget Falls and the glacier,” White said. “That’s fairly normal for that spot. But, for a given area, that’s a lot of animals in one spot.”
On a recent visit, the spotting scopes inside the visitor center were focused on these majestic ungulates. It was the middle of the day, so the scene was relaxed as animals lounged or napped on exposed crags and cliffs. From a distance, the goats looked no different than a patch of snow. But with the aid of binoculars or a scope, their long, white hair, black horns and blocky shape could be easily distinguished.
Generally speaking, mountain goats have longer hair in the winter than in summer. Both sexes have a crescent-shaped gland behind each horn that increases in size during rutting season, which typically happens in November or December. Adult males are considerably larger than females, up to 300 pounds or more. Females generally weigh about 160 pounds and have more slender horns than males. White said kids in this area, are born on or around May 25. They usually weigh 7 pounds at birth and remain with their mothers for up to a year.
“The next month or so, since the snow melts fastest in the avalanche chutes, you’ll typically see mountain goats moving back up the mountainsides eating the new vegetation,” White said. “That is a great bonanza for animals.”
Besides the area around the Mendenhall Glacier, White said the best place to see goats, even at low elevations in the summer, is near Herbert Glacier and in recently de-glaciated habitat such as areas found in Tracy Arm.
“At Herbert Glacier, through mid- to late-May, you can see nannies with newborn kids,” White said. “Most animals are having their kids up in the alpine, but some will still be in winter-range habitats.”
While spring offers exciting opportunities for viewing wildlife, White and Craig said it’s important to view the animals at a respectful distance.
“It’s important to keep in mind animals now are at their low point in nutritional status,” White said. “Hence, it’s important to reduce the amount of disturbance.”
Don’t approach too close, causing the animals to expend excessive energy, and keep pets at a distance.
“A lot of times people like to take dogs hiking,” White said. “But if you’re getting near goats, be conservative on how close you get and keep the dog on a leash.”
Wolves, he said represent an important predator to goats and dogs could often resemble a wolf.
“I observed some goats on rock a couple years ago. People came up on a ridge and they had a dog on a leash. There was a nanny, a kid and a yearling,” White said. “(The goats) totally spooked and ran up the ridge into the forest. That was an unfortunate thing to see happen. Particularly during kidding season.”
From a safe distance, wildlife watching can be nothing short of mesmerizing. Craig recalls seeing Mother Nature at her best — and worst — from the windows of the visitor center.
On sunny days, look for goats bedded down on protected ledges during the middle of the day. They’ll be more active in the morning and evening hours, said White.
Regardless of when these animals are seen, Craig said they’re nothing short of fascinating.
• Contact Outdoors editor Abby Lowell at firstname.lastname@example.org.