When state biologists started wondering whether planned development east of Lynn Canal would affect mountain goat populations, they realized they didn't know much about the animals, period.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game caught some 22 goats last month, tagged them with Global Positioning System radio collars and launched a four-year study to learn more about the species.
"They're just amazing animals," said Kevin White, wildlife research biologist for the department.
Researchers are especially worried about potential effects from the Kensington gold mine, already in early stages of construction, and the state's proposal to build a highway through the area to bring Juneau's road system closer to Skagway.
The technology employed will allow biologists to learn more about migratory patterns than ever before. The data could tell them if the goats will be threatened by the development.
Goats, perhaps the best hikers in Alaska, climb high altitudes to escape predators and feast on alpine vegetation.
In the winter, snow and ice force them down several thousand feet where they can find something to eat on land naturally sheltered by trees.
If construction is bothersome to the population, goats living near Lynn Canal could migrate to less ideal habitats, White said.
In these places the effects may first be subtle, but then gradually have larger consequences, he said.
For example, if the goats move to marginal areas with less food, they will gain a skinnier coat of fat for the winter. If their fat reserves are depleted, females may only give birth to one kid, rather than twins. Females are often pregnant through the winter, White said.
At worst, goats with less fat could starve through the winter, White said. They could also be exposed to new predators.
Because researchers know so little about the goats, they are not positive the mining will hurt the population. But now is the time to learn, White said.
"These are some of the key questions we are focusing on," he said.
The GPS allows researchers to fly over areas and download information collected over the past month. The collars, similar to hand-held GPS devices a fisherman might carry, record information every six hours and have a life of two years.
With conventional radio transmitters, biologists would get data only on the same day they fly over, which is about once a week.
"We spent a lot of time up in the air," White said.
Goats frequent ridges above Jordan Creek, some 1,000 to 2,000 feet above where the mine's construction is ongoing and also the future site for a mill that grinds rocks, he said.
"When we were capturing mountain goats up there a month ago, we could hear construction," White said, adding that the noise may affect goats' grazing and browsing patterns. The biologist also said blasting inside the mountain and whooping from helicopters could scare the goats away.
The department estimates 300 to 400 goats live between Juneau and Berners Bay, and the population is considered healthy. The goats' fondness for living above the tree line and in the harshest of weather conditions make it one of the hardest animals to study, White said.
"It wasn't until the 1970s when scientists finally started saying, 'Boy, this is a species we really don't know that much about,'" White said.
The goats' squatty frame and short legs make them poor runners, unlike deer. Their unique-shaped hooves help them hike up to hard to reach places.
"Your mind is boggled when trying to figure out how they can get to that spot," White said. "It's pretty amazing what these animals are able to do."
Many people confuse goats with Dall sheep. Despite a stream near Thane being named Sheep Creek, White said there are no sheep in Southeast Alaska, except for a few sightings near Haines and the Canadian border.
Sheep populate mountains and wide open spaces in the Interior, he said. Sheep have curved horns, as opposed to goats that have straight ones.
Male goats weigh up to 350 pounds while females are a slimmer 180 pounds. Hikers may suddenly come upon them on the trails. Goats in a group most likely are a mother and her young, while adult males, or billies, are loners.
White said some of the best places near Juneau to see mountain goats are on mountains near the Mendenhall and Herbert glaciers.
Andrew Petty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org