April brings billies, nannies and kids

Best time for viewing Juneau's mountain goat population is now

Posted: Friday, April 09, 2010

A big billy goat stood in plain view in the avalanche slope just above Thane Road last week, posing like a white wooly monarch. Juneau's practically urban mountain goat population is on display this month as the snow recedes and the spring vegetation emerges.

Photo By Kevin White
Photo By Kevin White

Mountain goats are among my favorites of Juneau's charismatic macrofauna, and April is a great time to watch them. They aren't obscured by vegetation and hence stand out on hillsides. They tend to be lower on the slopes, and downtown and the Mendenhall Valley offer good places to see them (more on this to come). It's also possible to see nanny bands - groups of females that will soon be accompanied by small kids - as well as big billies like the one I saw. Billies tend to be loners, or in a loose group of just a couple other males.

Nannies have kids in the spring, and even from a distance it's possible to differentiate between the 150 to 180 pound nannies and the smaller kids (nannies are likely at the lighter end of this range in early spring). Kids are less than 10 pounds at birth and grow to about 35 pounds within the first month. They trail behind the nannies and are a good clue that you are seeing a nanny band. Because nannies and billies look very similar, behavior is the best way to differentiate genders. Both nannies and billies have horns, and an experienced goat watcher can distinguish the subtleties in horn shape that differentiate the genders - but not at a distance.

One of the things that makes watching mountain goats interesting is marveling at their agility. Their survival is based on staying out of reach of predators. While they may venture out onto alpine meadows and open slopes, they are never far from escape terrain - cliffs and ledges that predators simply can't navigate. I've watched them casually leap from ledge to narrow ledge over vast precipices, climb what appears to be almost vertical slopes, and stand and turn on tiny outcrops. They do fall sometimes, and they are also taken out by rockslides and avalanches, but overall their strategy works.

Goats have remarkable adaptations for this life. Their hooves have hard outer shells with soft inner footpads which function like suction cups when weight is applied. Clearly, they have incredible traction. They are nimble and powerfully built, and those burly shoulders are not just wool and hair. I've seen goats wedge their front hooves and legs into crevices and pull themselves up like rock climbers.

Around here, bears and wolves prey on mountain goats. Bears focus on kids in the spring, but will take any goat they can get. Last year folks at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center watched a bear take down a goat on Mt. Bullard. Wolves are likely most successful hunting goats in the winter when goats seek shelter in the trees and at lower elevations. Though in Juneau, it's quite possible area wolf packs are good at hunting goats year round.

Wildlife biologist Kevin White is researching goats in the Juneau area and has evidence that GPS-collared wolves killed four collared goats, one in summer and three in winter. He added that evidence of wolverine scavenging is commonly seen at mountain goat mortality sites. And although golden eagles are not common in this area, last summer he watched a golden eagle make four attempts to take mountain goat kids. Golden eagles are known to prey on Dall sheep lambs in Interior Alaska, and a pair will work cooperatively to harry a ewe and try to separate her from her lamb. They can't really lift and carry off a lamb (or young goat kid), but will kill it on the spot or knock it off a cliff.

Juneau offers a number of opportunities to watch mountain goats, from afar and from closer up. Hikers seeking goat viewing opportunities should leave dogs at home, as goats may react strongly, even to leashed dogs. Be sensitive to the animals' behavior, viewing should never disturb animals.

From the Mendenhall Valley - especially the visitor center at the glacier - goats can be seen on Mt. McGinnis and Mt. Bullard. Hikers in summer can get excellent up close views of those McGinnis goats as well.

Basin Road offers outstanding views of goats on the side of Mount Juneau above the flume. Goats can also be seen on the avalanche slope above Behrends Avenue. I watched a band of seven animals traversing the cliffs about 800 feet up the slope on Monday.

Goats can also be viewed on the west side of Gastineau Peak and Mt. Roberts, from Thane Road and also from across the channel on Douglas. Goats can be seen on the side of Hawthorne Peak just south of Sheep Creek, and all along that long alpine ridge that terminates at Point Bishop. That's also another great place for alpine hikers to get up into goat country in summer.

Sheep Creek south of Juneau should be called Goat Creek, as it is named for mountain goats, not sheep. The Dictionary of Alaska Place Names mentions that Sheep Creek was named in 1880 by Joe Juneau and Richard Harris, and offers this quote (referenced to DeArmond): "We went about four miles further south to another nice looking creek we named Sheep Creek as we killed several mountain sheep, hence the name."

There are no mountain sheep, or Dall sheep, in Southeast Alaska, and the prospectors confused the two animals, a fairly common mistake.

• Riley Woodford is a wildlife watcher, and a writer and producer for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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