You’ll never know how many rocks look like mountain goats until you’re trying to find a goat in Glacier National Park.
As bison are to Yellowstone National Park, mountain goats are the iconic species of Glacier Park. Their image appeared on early posters advertising the park, and tourists flock to photograph the goats that frequent Logan Pass. So some find it concerning that, just like the glaciers, mountain goats might be dwindling in Glacier Park.
Scientists, having noticed the trend for at least the past decade, think climate change could be a factor. Mountain goats with their heavy coats aren’t adapted to heat so they have to climb to high elevations in summer. But climate change is also diminishing the kinds of vegetation that goats eat. The alpine snowfields that used to host St. John’s wort, beargrass, Idaho fescue, and other forbs and grasses are dwindling. So scientists started a number of projects to tracking the numbers and behavior of goats in the park.
The project I volunteered for is Goat Days, an annual event to survey goats throughout the park on the second weekend in August. With 34 sites, many of them deep in the backcountry, it would be almost impossible for park biologists to complete the survey in one weekend or even a couple weekends.
Perhaps the best way to count goats is from the air, which the park did in 2008 and 2009. But aerial surveys are expensive, costing more than $500 an hour for helicopters. As Congress continues to cut funding for scientific research and the Department of the Interior, organizations and research stations depend more and more on regular people – citizen scientists - to help with the simpler but no less important tasks of collecting data such as counting animals.
So the Citizen Science Program of the Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center in West Glacier manages the project and trains the volunteers so that the same methods are used each year. That’s important so the data can be compared throughout the years to detect any trends.
The methods aren’t the hard part; getting to the sites can be. As my partner put it, “Biology can be painful.”
I was assigned to count goats near Poia Lake, a 6.3 mile hike into the backcountry from the road near Many Glacier. But that wasn’t my assigned route, because we were also surveying another creature threatened by climate change: the pika. So I was scheduled to hike 10 miles from the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn along the Ptarmigan Trail to Elizabeth Lake so I could survey a pika site below the Ptarmigan Tunnel on Friday.
From there, the next day I would hike 10 miles to Poia Lake where I would survey both goats and pika on Saturday. Then I’d hike the 6.3 miles out on Sunday.
Pika, possibly the cutest members of the rabbit family, live in the crevices of high alpine talus slopes. They spend most of the summer scurrying over the rocks to pack their dens with loads of vegetation that they feed on throughout the winter. But climate change is a threat because heat-sensitive pikas can die in a matter of hours if they must endure temperatures above 78 degrees. So as lower slopes heat up, they may have to move. However, with their tiny size, they are prey for any number of predators. Park biologist Wendy Cole said less than a quarter of the animals that try to disperse survive to set up new digs.
It may be that the Ptarmigan pikas never made it.
Reaching the Ptarmigan site, we listened for the characteristic “eep” of a pika, but no small calls bounced through the barren basin above the lake. We searched every cranny within 12 meters of a set GPS point but found no sign of pikas other than one very old nest. It was the start of a weekend of discouraging results but dazzling scenery.
Late the next afternoon, after settling in at Poia Lake, we found our GPS goat marker on a steep hillside and set up our site. Using a compass and remembering to correct for true north, we established four quadrants based on east-west and north-south lines.
For a half hour, we used binoculars to scan for mountain goats in every nook and cranny on the mountainsides in the two northern quadrants. Then we searched the south for another half hour.
Glacier Park contains veins of white quartzite rock that dot some of the slopes and fool hopeful goat counters. As time went by with no goat sitings, we started to question everything we saw. We repeatedly stared at several white blobs only to finally accept that they were rocks.
If we saw a goat, we were to use the spotting scope to try to sex the animal and estimate its age. That can be tricky if you can’t compare body size because, like bison, the only physical difference is the curve of the horns: female horns look like an upside-down ski jump with the curve more at the tip while male horns have a more consistent curve.
But we never had to debate the sex. There was no goat to be found. So we were the only ones to watch from the hillside as loons traced lines across the darkening lake and the setting sun dyed the sky the same color as Red Gap Pass.
We left the final pika survey until morning, which turned out to be lucky.
Searching the Poia pika site, we found it was also deserted. Then a small sound pricked our ears. We followed the telltale “eep” and found what may have been the site’s former inhabitants off to the side on another talus slope.
As I was writing the information down, my partner was glassing the mountaintops. The next sound was a satisfied, “Ha!”
There, near a tiny snowfield about 30 feet below the top of a ridge, one of the white rocks was moving. We finally found a goat. Even though we didn’t find it during the formal survey, we’d been told to record any siting so the information will still play a part.
We wondered about our competence, because a previous volunteer told us Poia Lake had “lots of goats.” But the previous data doesn’t bear that out. In 2010 through 2013, volunteers counted one or none. Then in 2014, volunteers counted 11.
Similarly, although it oscillates with the years, the total number of goats in the park – around 100 - appears to be declining slightly overall. If so, it reflects what is happening in most areas of Montana, the exceptions being parts of the Crazy and Bitterroot mountains.
But six to eight years is too short a time to know whether the trend will hold. This year’s Goat Days count will add one more data point. The hope is for a higher total to erase the trend, but this year’s drought doesn’t bode well for that.