By ALEX PAJUNAS
As the warm afternoon sun begins its descent toward the jagged ridge of the Elkhorns, a cool breeze picks up, breaking the calm on the surface of Lower Twin Lake.
Across the water a group of nine Rocky Mountain goats, including two young kids, run and jump, sending loose rock tumbling into banks of snow.
The scenery alone is a great reason to hit the trail and head into the Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City.
But it's the goats that can steal the show.
"It's a fantastic viewing opportunity for mountain goats, and there are very few of those opportunities in the United States to be up close to mountain goats," said Jim Cadwell, the acting district biologist for Baker County with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).
There are two major herds of mountain goats in Oregon one in the Elkhorns, the other in the Wallowas.
"If you are looking for a way to view goats, the Elkhorn Crest Trail is a great way," said Brian Ratliff, who works at ODFW's Baker City office. "It is not hard to go up there any time of the year and find them."
Going out on a hike two Sundays ago, Tom Kulog of Baker City had heard about most goats being on the Twin Lakes side of the Crest Trail away from the more crowded Anthony Lake side.
Kulog saw several clumps of goat hair along the trail from Marble Creek Pass but he didn't glimpse any goats before an impending thunderstorm shortened his hike.
To improve your chances of seeing the mountain goats, Cadwell suggests you time your search around the first light in the morning as well as just before dark.
"The big concentration of goats is from Marble Creek Pass all the way down past Rock Creek Butte," said Ratliff, 31. "They are spreading out and of course we are helping them do that, but the biggest concentration is through that area."
ODFW officials set out salt licks to bait and trap mountain goats in order to keep them from concentrating in certain areas.
The 50-pound blocks of salt are mainly delivered by foot or on horseback, and in some cases in the Wallowas, the blocks are dropped from a plane.
According to Cadwell, six males and 13 females were trapped this year and all were released into the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness in the Umatilla National Forest.
"As long as we have adequate release sites that are cleared through all the appropriate agencies and landowners, we are trying to re-establish them back into native range in Oregon," said Cadwell, 49, of La Grande. "This population (in the Elkhorns) is the most productive population we have in the state and we are able to take about 15 to 20 goats out of it each year."
In 2005, ODFW estimated the mountain goat population in the Elkhorns at 175. Back in 1983 that number totaled just 21, and the year before that there were none.
According to the ODFW Web site, mountain goats in Oregon were completely wiped out either prior to or during European settlement. But their native distribution in the state, and the reasons they disappeared, are not entirely clear.
"The history is not very good," Cadwell said. "There are some very old records dating back to the Lewis and Clark era and before that have mentioned goats in one frame or another. But it is very difficult to get that kind of information. We can't say what exactly caused their demise in Oregon."
Both Native Americans and European settlers hunted mountain goats, Cadwell said.
The first five goats reintroduced to Oregon were brought to the Wallowas in 1950 from the Chopaka Mountains in Washington. In 1983, ODFW brought 21 goats from Idaho, Washington and Alaska to repopulate the Elkhorns.
"The mission of the ODFW is to provide sustainable populations of wildlife, native wildlife, in Oregon and re-establish those that were native to traditional areas," said Cadwell.
If you happen to come upon a block of salt there is a good chance you will see a mountain goat, especially from spring through the end of July, when the demand for salt by big game animals like deer, elk and mountain goats is at its peak.
"It could have to do with the metabolism that is required for producing the milk for the young or simply for water retention as the temperatures get hotter," Cadwell said.
This attraction to salt has led some people to pack in their own small blocks of salt in an effort to get a closer view of the mountain goats.
"We don't encourage that for a number of reasons," said Cadwell. "Number one is we want these animals to remain as wild as possible. Any time that you start feeding animals or giving them nutritive supplements that has a tendency to get them a little more domesticated and then we end up having to start deal with conflicts with animals. In some cases we have to destroy animals because of the familiarity they have with the public."
Though feeding goats can lead to a public safety hazard, goats are generally not a threat to people who want to view them up close.
"As long as they have escape terrain nearby or are in it, then they are not really scared of you. If you get above them, they don't like it," said Ratliff. "So if you are hiking above them, they will scurry around and get back above you. But if they are above you they don't really seem to mind too much."
Salt licks have helped discourage goats from entering campsites to chew on sweaty backpacks, saddles or dirty dishes. However, ODFW still advises that you keep those items out of reach or inside your tent, and to avoid urinating near camp. If you bring a dog, keep it tied up or under control.
Both Ratliff and Cadwell recall a dog being gored after barking and running after a nanny goat and her kid.
"Other than that they don't present a public safety issue. They are not that aggressive," said Cadwell. "The only times they would potentially get aggressive is if they get too used to people."
"Like any other animal, just leave them alone," suggested Ratliff. "Enjoy the sight and enjoy the time you get to spend with them. They are a neat critter and they make great pictures."