By JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Twenty years ago the only goats in Baker County were tame little farm dwellers that gamboled around green pastures, perhaps with cute little bells dangling beneath their chins.
Today the county's biggest bunch of goats are the sharp-horned, thick-bodied brutes that scale the precipitous heights of the Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City, thriving in an environment nearly as harsh as the Arctic.
These are wild mountain goats, and they have little but name in common with the gentle animals some people keep, primarily for their milk.
Since the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) in 1983 released the first bunch of mountain goats in the Elkhorns fewer than a dozen animals, all trapped in Idaho the Elkhorn herd has expanded to number about 160, said George Keister, district wildlife biologist at ODFW's Baker City office.
The herd has grown steadily since those three initial transplants between 1983 and 1986, a total of 21 goats from Idaho, Alaska and Washington.
And in the ensuing years, Baker County's high-living goats have become something of a tourist attraction, Keister said.
andquot;The goats have been extremely popular with everyone hikers, campers, hunters,andquot; he said. andquot;They really add a lot to those mountains.andquot;
Many mountain ranges in Oregon are better-known than the Elkhorns, but only the Wallowas, their granitic neighbors across Baker Valley to northeast, also boast a mountain goat population.
You won't find these majestic animals in the Cascades or the Steens, the Siskiyous or the Ochocos.
But thanks to the success of ODFW's mountain goat experiment in Baker County, that might not always be the case.
The Elkhorn herd is so productive that over the past two years the agency has trapped 36 goats in the mountains and released them elsewhere.
The first bunch of 16, trapped in 2000, was transplanted to the Hat Point area on the rim of Hells Canyon east of Joseph, Keister said.
Earlier this year ODFW caught 20 more goats in the Elkhorns and let them loose near Summit Point north of Halfway.
Those goats have since spread north through the Wallowas nearly to Wallowa Lake, Keister said.
In the future the goat herds in both the Elkhorns and Wallowas could serve as source stock for craggy peaks across the state, he said.
Oregon has plenty of the vertical country the nimble goats prefer, and according to decades-old accounts the animals once lived in the Cascades at least as far south as Mount Jefferson.
ODFW counts goats in the Elkhorns once a year, typically in August.
Keister said the census takers concentrate on the menagerie of high ridges and pinnacles around Rock Creek Butte, at 9,106 feet the highest point in the Elkhorns, and in the vicinity of Rock Creek Lake, Pine Creek and Goodrich reservoirs, and Twin Lakes.
Besides tallying a total population, ODFW also counts each year's batch of kids.
This year's ratio of 45 kids per 100 adults is high, Keister said, suggesting the herd is healthy and still growing.
And that in turn indicates there is sufficient habitat in the range for the current goat population, he said.
A few years ago it seemed there might be too many goats in the Elkhorns for their own good.
Several backpackers complained to ODFW that the inquisitive animals were marauding campsites in search of sweat-stained hiking clothes or anything else that might contain the salt the goats craved.
ODFW set out several salt blocks, and there have been no complaints since, Keister said.
Still, mountain goats tend to be more gregarious than more plentiful but considerably more skittish big game such as deer and elk.
This difference is easy to explain.
Every autumn thousands of hunters pursue deer and elk in Baker County; and those animals also have to fear unarmed but still lethal predators such as cougars, coyotes and black bear.
Mountain goats, by contrast, live a life of leisure.
It was only in 1997 that ODFW first allowed anyone to hunt goats in the Elkhorns, and even then only a single person.
Starting in 1999 the agency doubled the annual allocation to two tags, yet even with the increase just 10 hunters have drawn one of the once-in-a-lifetime goat tags for the early September hunt.
(All 10 have filled their tags, each by killing a mature billy, as ODFW hoped. Research from the Wallowas, where hunting was allowed during the 1960s, led biologists to conclude that killing even a few kid-bearing nannies could cause populations to decline drastically, whereas removing a few billies had little effect. The bag limit for goat hunting is any goat, but ODFW encourages hunters to target only billies.)
With such minimal pressure from people, the goats have learned they need not fear humans and they act accordingly, often grazing contentedly while hikers snap photographs barely more than an arm's length away.
Cougars and other predators don't pose a significant threat for goats, either, Keister said.
The goats pass most of their time on cliffs and ledges where even sure-footed pursuers rarely tread, and when cornered a goat can inflict considerable damage with its thick hooves and dagger-like horns (both males and females sport them).
Keister said goats are likely to succumb to the icy grip of an avalanche than the killing claws of a mountain lion.
Next to old age, snowslides and accidental falls probably are the most common causes of death among mountain goats in the Elkhorns, he said, although he admits neither he nor any other biologist has been able to devote the time necessary for anything more than occasional cursory studies of the animals' habits.