Creature Feature – Rocky Mountain Goat

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New creature feature in honor of the Black Hills mountain goat population survey coming up next weekend. If you’re in the area (or are looking for a last minute roadtrip) and are interested in volunteering for the survey visit goatalliance.org for more info.

Oreamnos americanus
Range: primarily the Rocky Mountains and Cascade Range
Height: about 3.5 feet at the shoulder
Weight: 100 to 300 pounds
Lifespan: 9 to 13 years in the wild. Up to 20 years in captivity.

The Rocky Mountain Goat is the largest mammal found in their high-altitude alpine habitats, which can exceed elevations of 13,000 feet. Only found in North America, they inhabit the Rocky Mountain region as well as the Cascade Range, from Washington, Idaho and Montana through British Columbia, Alberta, southern Yukon and southeastern Alaska. Introduced populations can also be found in other areas including Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, Colorado, and South Dakota.

Despite its name, the mountain goat is not a true goat. They’re properly known as goat-antelopes, and are more closely related to chamois and goral than true goats. They are herbivores whose diet includes grasses, sedges, herbs, shrubs, ferns, mosses, and lichen. They are also drawn to salt licks, although there is no evidence that salt is a required mineral for them.

Mountain goats are protected from the elements by their woolly white double coats. The dense wool of their undercoats provides a layer of insulation, which is covered by an outer layer of longer hollow guard hairs that protects from wind, rain, and snow. This coat helps them withstand temperatures as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit and winds up to 100 mph. In the spring they shed the extra wool by rubbing against rocks and trees. Although never domesticated for their wool, pre-Columbian indigenous peoples did use the wool by collecting molted wool left by wild goats.

Both male and female mountain goats have beards, short tails, and long black horns. Seasonal growth rings are formed on a goat’s horn each year. These rings help tell us the age of a goat similar to the way the rings of a tree do. The horns of a mountain goat will have one less ring than its age.

The horns can also be used to help identify a mountain goat’s gender. Male goats (billies) have thicker horns with large bases that almost seem to touch. They taper gradually to a point and tend to sweep back in a more uniformed arc. Female goats (nannies) have slender horns with a wider space between the horns. They tend to flare out when looking straight on, and from the profile they appear to hook with a sharp curve near the tip.

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Known for their agility, mountain goats are often seen scaling steep, rocky ledges. They have cloven hooves with two toes that spread wide to improve balance, and rubbery concave footpads which act like suction cups to help maintain traction. Mountain goats can leap nearly 12 feet in a single bound, and turn around on a platform that is only inches wide. They can also pull themselves up from ledge to ledge using just their strong muscular forequarters.

The Black Hills population began in the 1920s when six mountain goats escaped from a small zoo located in Custer State Park. By the 1960s the population grew to around 300 before crashing in the 1980s and again in the 2000s. One suspected reason for this decline was a lack of genetic diversity, which caused a genetic bottleneck. To help diversify the bloodlines 19 mountain goats from Colorado were introduced in 2006, and another 21 from Utah were introduced in 2013. Today the population is estimated to be around 120 and rising. The can most often be seen near Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, Harney Peak, and along Needles Highway.

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