Mountain goat hunting is arguably the most dangerous form of North American big game hunting. The rugged terrain and the extraordinary climbing abilities of this animal conspire to put you into tough situations where you have to weigh your own safety against your desire to be successful. Almost every year, a mountain goat hunter will die in the high country of the Rockies, Canada, and Alaska. Slip-and-falls kill some; hypothermia and exposure kill others.
- Best spotting scope
As any mountain goat hunter will tell you, there is no such thing as an uneventful mountain goat hunt. Goats live in the alpine zone beyond the reach of vehicles, and usually beyond the reach of pack animals. You have to climb to them on foot, usually sleeping on the mountain for multiple nights in conditions that can be wet, cold, and sometimes icy. Under these circumstances, hunting can become a torturous exercise in problem solving. So when planning a mountain goat hunt, make sure to allow adequate time. You don’t want to be rushed when you’re hunting such dangerous country. Despite all the hardships, or perhaps thanks to them, there remains an undying interest in mountain goat hunting among seasoned backcountry hunters. It is one of the ultimate hunting challenges. Mountain goats are not actually goats. They belong to a bovid subfamily called Caprinae, which is populated by many homed mountain dwellers. The mountain goat’s closest living relatives include the serows and gorals of Asia, as well as the chamois of Eurasia. BARROOM BANTER: Mountain goats are probably the least understood of all North American big game. For a long time, it was assumed by biologists that mountain goats could withstand harvest rates similar to species such as deer and elk—sometimes as high as 20 to 30 percent. In reality, mountain goats have very low reproductive rates as well as significant mortality rates from predation, starvation, and accidental death from avalanches and rock slides. Typical big game harvest rates can lead to declining populations and even localized ex-tinctions. Thankfully, state game agencies now set their mountain goat harvest goals as low as 3 or 4 percent. This helps ensure a viable resource of mountain goats that will benefit future generations of hunters.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Stocky and heavily shouldered, with stout, muscular legs. Whitish fur, often stained a dirty yellow; it is short in summer and long in winter. Both males and females are armed with small, stiletto-like horns. Males can weigh close to 200 pounds, females up to around 160. DIET: A wide variety of alpine plants, including grasses, sedges, forbs, lichens, and moss. Also limbs and leaves from low-growing shrubs and conifers at or near the timberline.
LIFE AND DEATH: Mountain goat predators include wolves, wolverines, and golden eagles, though avalanches and rockslides prob-ably kill more mountain goats than all natural predators combined. Mountain goats can live into their teens. Habitat disturbance is the greatest long-term threat to this shy species.
BREEDING AND REPRODUCTION: Mountain goats rut in November and December. Females drop one or two kids, though sometimes three, between mid-May and mid-June.
HABITAT: Precipitous and rocky country at or above the timberline.
TELLTALE SIGN: Besides tracks and scat, look for shed wool collected on shrubs near trails and bedding areas. Bedding areas are often marked by shallow depressions excavated into soft ground on ledges and near the bases of cliffs. These depressions are usually bordered by an abun-dance of droppings.
EDIBILITY: Excellent-tasting, though older animals can be almost unchewably tough. When dealing with a tough mountain goat, use slow-cook methods such as braising. Goat meat is also well suited for coming, grinding, and sausage making.
HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES: Unless you’re a resident of Alaska, British Columbia, the Yukon, or the Northwest Territories, or have an immediate family member in one of those places, you’ll have to hire a guide if you want to hunt mountain goats on a regular basis. Most western states do offer mountain goat tags through permit lotteries, but the odds of drawing one are slim. It’s best to team up with a bunch of friends and make a deal: if one of you draws a mountain goat tag, you all go along and share the experience, costs, and meat.
HUNTING METHODS: Like most alpine hunting, mountain goat hunting is a spot-and-stalk venture. The goat’s habit of hanging around steep cliff faces and along knife-edge ridgelines makes it a fairly easy animal to find once you get into the appropriate terrain. Because of the extreme steepness of goat country, the animals are often glassed from below. Getting up to the highest point of land requires too much effort and entails too many risks. Thanks to their coloration and the openness of high mountain country, 204 it’s possible to spot mountain goats at greater distances than probably any other big game animal. An exception is when mountain goats are at lower elevations at or near the timberline. This is especially common in coastal British Columbia and southeast Alaska, where goats inhabit lower elevations than they do on inland mountain ranges, and also during late-season hunts elsewhere, as winterlike conditions in the high country push goats downward toward shelter and less snow. But even goats that are bedding in timber will still keep steep cliffs to their back as escape cover. During morning and evening hours, they will move up to the cliff faces, or out to open bowls, basins, and timber-free ledges where they can find their preferred foods. If you’re hunting goats in such a situation, make sure that you’re glassing during the early and late hours of the day, when otherwise hidden goats are visible.
Goat hunting can be a scary business, but the right attitude can help you overcome any hardship. This Alaska hunter killed a large billy while six months pregnant.
When mountain goats are up in the alpine zone, above all traces of timber, they may be easy to find, but that doesn’t mean you can reach them. Mountain goats can climb to places where no predator besides a golden eagle has even a prayer of touching them. There are many goats out there that simply cannot be hunted thanks to the inaccessibility of where they hang out. It’s common for mountain goat hunters to watch a particular goat for a couple of days before the animal moves into a stalkable position—if it ever does. You need to be patient and vigilant when hunting goats in tough country like this. Sometimes your only chance comes when a goat crosses a ridgeline that separates its bedding and feeding areas, or when it crosses a gulley or wash that bisects an otherwise unclimbable face. If you notice that a goat crosses a piece of vulnerable terrain like this, make note of when it happens. Left undis-turbed, mountain goats tend to follow the same patterns from one day to the next. Put yourself in the proper position at the right time the next day, and you have a good chance of getting your goat as it passes through a reachable area Of course, not all mountain goats are in such difficult places to reach. Often a mountain goat can be stalked in a fairly straightforward manner. If you’re a competent marksman who can handle shots of around 300 yards, goats can be approached from directly below if there’s adequate cover to conceal your movements. But since the animals are sensitive to threats coming from below, there’s a good chance that they’ll spot you before too long. When they do, they’ll head for the cliffs if they’ve been experiencing any hunting pressure. A better bet is to use a gulley that lies off to one side or another of the goat you’re after. You can scramble up the bottom of the gulley until you’re even with the goat and then move laterally to a point where you can make your shot. If you get into a situation where you can approach from above, the goats might not even think to look up. But if they see you above them, they’ll likely panic. They are very shy about threats from above and will probably make a hasty retreat by moving along the face below you to a safe position. No matter the direction of your approach—uphill, sidehill, from above—keep this in mind: if a mountain goat sees you, he isn’t going to forget about you just because you duck behind some boulders. When you vanish from sight, he’s going to get nervous about where you went and will probably leave much more quickly than if you stayed out in the open and attempted a slow, direct approach.
A mountain goat hunter should bring along whatever climbing equipment he or she is comfortable using. A rope and carabiners can come in handy for retrieving a downed animal in a difficult spot, or for securing an animal that might go over an edge during the butchering process. During late-season hunts, when conditions get icy, crampons and ice axes can make mountain travel much easier.
Retrieval of the animal is perhaps the number one thing that should be on a mountain goat hunter’s mind. You should never shoot at a mountain goat unless you are sure that you’re going to be able to reach the animal’s carcass. It isn’t enough to plan on the animal dropping right in its tracks, either. Mountain goats can take a hit quite well and will often travel a few steps before tipping over from even a well-placed shot. Those few steps are all that it takes for a goat to reach a precipice and plummet into oblivion. And if a mountain goat does keep its feet after the initial shot, fire another round immediately. You want to anchor the animal as quickly as possible. Even downed goats are capable of traveling tremendous distances, as their barrel-shaped bodies and short legs seem custom designed for rolling down hills. So you need to account for plenty of after-shot movement, both walking and rolling, when assessing whether a goat is in an appropriate location to shoot.
Horn size and configuration can be used to determine the sex of mature mountain goats, but it is often difficult for novice goat hunters to make the call without having extra information. The animal’s urination posture and visible genitalia can also be used to distinguish between billies and nannies During urination, billies stand up with their hind legs stretched backward and splayed to the side, while nannies squat with their rump close to the ground. The scrotum can be clearly visible on a billy in a short summer coat, and the dark patch of the vulva can be visible on a nanny when her tail is raised.
ADULT BILLY: 1. Larger horn base—usually wider than the eye. 2. Bases are closer together. 3. Horn is heavy throughout its length. 4. Horn has gradual curve.
ADULT NANNY: 1. Wider space between horns. 2. Horn is thin throughout its length. 3. Horn is straighter with most of the curve near the end. 4. Smaller horn base—equal to or smaller than the eye.
This mountain goat has thick horn bases wider than its eyes and a narrow gap between its horns, signifying a male. A side view is still needed to inspect the curvature of the horn. A billy’s horns will sweep back in a steady, fairly constant curve. A nanny’s horns will be straighter toward the base with a sharp curve near the tips.
Finally, goat hunters have an obligation to the species to learn the difference between billies and nannies. Because it’s so hard for inexpe-rienced hunters to distinguish between sexes, game managers aren’t able to mandate male-only harvests with mountain goats. But if hunters did a better job and limited their harvest to billies, it’s fair to say that we would see increases in the number of mountain goat tags available to hunters throughout the range of the species. This isn’t to say that there’s anything wrong with harvesting female specimens of big game in gen-eral; in fact, doing so is often necessary for sound management. Instead, this is something that is specific to mountain goats, which have fairly low fecundity and relatively small population sizes. By killing a billy, you remove just one animal. By killing a nanny, you’re removing three or four. If possible, shoot a billy. If it’s not possible, you can always apply for another tag in the future.