Classification and Range
Mountain goats belong to the even-toed ungulate order Artiodactyla and its large subdivision, the Bovidae family. They are further classified into the subfamily Caprinae (goat antelopes), which consists of 32 species in 10 genera. There is only one species in the genus Oreamnos. This name comes from the Greek language, from the words Oreas (mountain nymph) or ore (mountain) plus amnos (lamb). The Rocky Mountains and the coastal ranges of northwestern North America constitute the range of mountain goats. Natural populations live in southern Alaska, Canada, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Transplanted populations now live in Colorado, Oregon, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, South Dakota and Washington's Olympic Peninsula.
Mountain goats inhabit rocky terrain in alpine and subalpine regions. They normally live at altitudes up to 10,000 feet (3,050 m), although they may descend to coastal habitats at the ocean's edge in northern Washington and southern Alaska. They are the largest mammals to live at these altitudes. Mountain goats frequent extremely steep slopes with pitches above 60 degrees. They make use of these slopes, in winter temperatures down to -50 Fahrenheit (-46 Celsius), winds up to 100 miles per hour (161 km/h) and snow drifts 30 –- 60 feet (9 –- 18 m) high. Mountain goats seasonally migrate from higher rockslide slopes and alpine meadows in the spring and summer to lower elevations in the winter; however, they usually remain above the timberline in winter.
Mountain goats are perfectly designed for steep, rocky terrain. Their unique feet have hard, bony structures that surround a soft inner part. The convex soles act as skid-resistant traction pads and the two front toes can spread apart or draw close together. The two back dewclaws add extra footing and drag when moving down slope. Their powerful forequarters are capable of pulling the animal uphill with just one hoof holding a ledge.
Average weight and height
Adult males weigh 101-225 pounds (46-102 kg) with females 10-30% lighter. Huge males may reach 309 pounds (140 kg). Adult males measure up to 69 inches (175 cm) long and 48 inches (122 cm) in height. Adult females are smaller, up to 57 inches (145 cm) long and 36 inches (92 cm) in height.
In the wild: 12-15 years. Their lifespan is limited by the teeth wearing down to the gumline.
At the zoo: 16-20 years.
In the wild: Both browse and graze depending on season and habitat on a wide variety of grasses, sedges, herbs, shrub leaves and twigs, ferns, mosses, lichen, even conifer needles. Botanist Beth Ferris identified 170 plant species eaten throughout an entire season.
At the zoo: Mornings: herbivore and omolene grain, apples; mid-day: browse; evenings: alfalfa and carrots.
More Physical Characteristics
Mountain goats have a double coat suitable for their freezing cold habitat. The coarse, hollow guard hairs measure up to 8 inches (20 cm) and the undercoat consists of 2-3 inches (5-8 cm) of dense, fine wool. Each year beginning in the spring, they molt by shedding their matted and discolored coats. Adult billies molt earliest and pregnant nannies the latest. Trees, shrubs and rocks become adorned with shed wool as the animals rub against them. Most of the molt is completed by July, and then a new, thick coat begins to grow in preparation for winter’s onset.
Both males (billies) and females (nannies) have black horns measuring from 6-11 inches (15-28cm). These are very sharp and gradually curve back towards the neck. The horns contain yearly growth rings. The tail is very short, only 4-8 inches (10-20 cm) in length.
Sexual maturity occurs at about 30 months of age in both sexes. Females in a group undergo synchronized estrus during breeding season (late October, early December), which leads to a synchronized birth in spring. If young billies attempt to mate, adult nannies rebuff them. Older billies approach mature nannies very tentatively and spend time staring and digging rutting pits. Mature billies compete in mostly ritualized battles but these occasionally result in injury or death. Finally, the billy approaches the nanny in a low stretch or non-threatening posture to sniff her genitals, places his chin on her rump, and solicits stiff leg-kicking behavior. After the mounting, females may lick the male’s face or neck. Both usually seek other partners afterwards, although tending bonds may occur when the male keeps others away. Nannies may even pursue inattentive billies. After breeding season, males move away from the group of females.
Births take place between late May and early June after a gestation period of 180-186 days. The nanny moves to an isolated ledge to give birth. Then, she quickly licks the kid dry and eats the placenta. Single births are most common but twins do occur; triplets are rare. Kids weigh just 7 pounds (3.2 kg) at birth, but they are extremely precocial. A kid can stand within 20 minutes, and walk within 30. Within hours, it even attempts to leap and climb, albeit on very wobbly legs. Watchful nannies position themselves downhill between the kid and dangerous cliffs, while kids run under their mothers for protection. When nursing, the kid may butt the nanny's udder hard enough to lift the nanny's rear end into the air. Soon after birth, the kid begins to graze and is mostly weaned by 1 month. Mountain goat kids do not hide and freeze when faced with danger; instead, they closely follow their mothers from birth till 11 months of age. The nanny breaks the bond just before the next birth, although if she doesn't give birth, she may allow the yearling to continue to follow.
Herds consist of solitary individuals and bands. During summers, females, their kids and juveniles form nursery bands. These are loose knit groups of 2-50 individuals. Yearlings and 2 year olds follow mature nannies and young, thus learning from them. Mature males move away and form small, bachelor groups of two or three billies.
Queen of the Mountain
Mountain goats may have many confrontations between each other. Nannies are highly competitive, intolerant and aggressive in protecting their close, personal space. Nannies succeed in dominating the best food resources available in their mountainous ranges. Fights occur over feeding resources, salt licks, and rest spots whereby dominance is based on age and size. One change in bedding position by the most dominant nanny might result in conflicts within the whole band, as each displaces the next goat lower in status. Battles are mostly ritual circling, with lowered heads and hooking motions with their horns; however, they can become serious. Yearlings and kids may be butted off steep ridges or gored from the sharp horns. The low-stretch non-aggressive posture is one means of conflict avoidance. The very thick protective hide along their rear flanks and rumps also prevents damage. Despite all the time spent in conflict, most of a mountain goat's life consists of eating and bedding about three times daily. Nannies even attempt to assert dominance over less aggressive bighorn sheep. Below the timberline, they may have to defend their young and themselves from wolverines, wolves, lynx, cougars, eagles and even grizzly bears. The only major predator above the timberline is the golden eagle during birthing season and shortly thereafter.
Location at the Zoo
Woodland Park Zoo's mountain goats are located in the zoo's award-winning Northern Trail. The boardwalk provides a face-to-face view of mountain goats from a number of locations. Be patient while looking for them, they are reclusive and have several hiding places in their exhibit. Other animals that can be seen at the Northern Trail are brown bear, fisher, elk, gray wolf, bald eagle and porcupine.
Mountain goats are not listed as an endangered species. However, they face many dangers. Kids and yearlings are most vulnerable and many do not survive the hard winters. Malnutrition, avalanches, rockfalls, landslides and falls claim many victims. Kids are also prey for golden eagles, which prey at heights difficult for most predators. Cougars successfully maneuver in alpine habitats and even attack adults.
Humans also endanger mountain goats. Roads for logging, mining and oil development provide access to formerly inaccessible mountain goat habitat. Trophy hunting can negatively impact mountain goat populations. Consequently, declining populations have a proportionally greater effect, since mountain goats reproduce and grow slowly compared to most hoofstock. Their total population is estimated at between 40,000-100,000.
There is a continuing debate over the mountain goat population in the Olympic National Park. In the 1920s, a hunting club worked with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and US Forest Service to introduce these non-native animals to this area. The 15 mountain goats transplanted in 1920 multiplied to over 500 by 1977, and more than 1,000 by 1983. Since they eat most plants and create wallows for dust-baths and trails, there is concern over damage to extremely fragile alpine ecosystems and rare native plants. After years of debate and dozens of hearings, a plan was introduced to solve the problem. Since the 1980s, over 400 goats have been removed and transported outside the region to the Cascades and to other states. In the 1980s, WPZ veterinarian Dr. Jim Foster headed a birth control program of birth control implants and male sterilization for mountain goats in Olympic National Park. This issue is still heated and not resolved.
How You Can Help!
The effort to save endangered species requires cooperation and support at the international, national, regional and individual levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo or other conservation organizations of your choice. Do not buy products made from wild-caught animal parts. Contact your elected representatives and express your views about conservation of endangered species and wild habitats.
Contact Woodland Park Zoo at firstname.lastname@example.org find out other ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Chadwick, Douglas H. 1983. A Beast the Color of Winter: The Mountain Goat Observed. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, CA. 208 p.
Wigal, Ronald A. and Victor L. Coggins. "Mountain Goat" in: Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management, Economics. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD. pages 1008-1020.