By JAYSON JACOBY
The hairy creatures standing in a meadow near Sumpter looked as conspicuous as a couple of Sasquatches playing tetherball in a playground.
Well, maybe not that conspicuous.
But to Ramon and Carolyn Lara the animals seemed sufficiently out of place that the Baker City couple steered their car to the gravel shoulder of Highway 8 and grabbed their digital camera.
What the Laras photographed on the day before Thanksgiving is a trio of bright-white mountain goats.
The key word here is andquot;mountain.andquot;
The goats are hardly rare in Baker County about 170 of them live here.
But as their common name implies, these are mammals of the mountains which hardly ever, even during winter's frostbitten abyss, venture into valleys.
andquot;I hadn't ever thought I'd see a goat there in the valley bottom,andquot; Ramon Lara said.
Ryan Torland, by contrast, wasn't exactly shocked to hear about three goats grazing near the Sumpter Valley Railroad's McEwen Station, about 20 miles southwest of Baker City.
But then Torland's a wildlife biologist whose territory includes Oregon's most populous mountain goat herd, so he's more wise than most people to the ways of the goat.
Torland works at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's (ODFW) Baker City office.
He keeps track as much as is possible of the goats that roam the Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City.
That's where most of the goats roam most of the time, anyway.
Torland said Elkhorn goats wander occasionally usually the wayward goat is a young billy who gets bumped from the pecking order during breeding season by older, tougher billies.
Torland said several people besides the Laras saw mountain goats in Sumpter Valley in late November.
During the past two years or so Torland has confirmed goat sightings in several other places which, like Sumpter Valley, aren't prime goat habitat, including:
o Near the Burnt River just below Unity Reservoir. A driver accidentally hit and killed a young billy along Highway 245.
o Near Kimberly, along the John Day River in western Grant County.
o Close to the old lime quarry beside Interstate 84 near Huntington.
andquot;It's kind of interesting to see where the goats go,andquot; Torland said. andquot;It's really hard to predict where they're going to show up.andquot;
It's easier to predict where the goats will settle down and raise their kids, he said.
Goats generally prefer the steepest, most inaccessible ground they can find, Torland said.
Precipitous slopes are the goats' best defense against cougars, coyotes and other predators, he said. Most animals avoid the cliffy country where the nimble goats, whose hooves have a sandpapery texture that grips rocks, gambol with carefree agility.
The Elkhorns are ideal goat habitat, and the animals have thrived in those mountains since ODFW released 21 goats along Pine Creek between 1983 and 1986.
ODFW trucked those goats from Alaska, Idaho and Washington.
Goats are so abundant in the Elkhorns, in fact, that during the past seven years ODFW has trapped about 100 goats at Goodrich Lake, then released the animals elsewhere in Northeastern Oregon. Most of those goats went to the Wallowa Mountains or to Hells Canyon.
Goats settle in the Strawberrys
But the goats, it seems, don't need ODFW biologists playing real estate agent for them.
During the past decade, more than a dozen people have told ODFW that they saw a mountain goat in the Strawberry Mountains, in Grant County near Prairie City and John Day.
But it wasn't until the autumn of 2005 that biologists gathered evidence that goats weren't just visiting the Strawberrys, but were actually settling there to start a family.
Biologists from the ODFW office in Canyon City booked a helicopter flight over the Strawberrys, said Greg Jackle, the assistant district biologist at Canyon City.
They saw seven goats during the flight, Jackle said two billies, one nanny, three kids and one, as Jackle puts it, andquot;unidentified.andquot;
The latter animal was a mountain goat the biologists just didn't get a good enough look to determine the goat's gender.
The presence of the kids persuaded Jackle that goats have colonized the Strawberrys.
andquot;That's the proof we were looking for,andquot; he said.
Jackle said he also flew over Dixie Butte and the Greenhorn Mountains, two goat-friendly ranges between the Strawberrys and the Elkhorns.
Biologists didn't see goats in either place, but Jackle said he has seen goats each of the past two springs on Vinegar Hill, the tallest peak in the Greenhorns.
A few archery hunters also reported goats in the Greenhorns this fall, Jackle said.
Torland said the Strawberrys and Greenhorns, because their terrain is so similar to the Elkhorns', are perfect places for mountain goats.
Despite Jackle's discovery, ODFW officials still plan to move at least a dozen goats from the Elkhorns to the Strawberrys, Torland said. The Fish and Wildlife Commission hasn't scheduled that transplant, however.
Torland said studies from other states suggests that seven goats is too few to guarantee a herd's survival.
andquot;We usually figure fifteen to twenty is the minimum number needed to get a population started,andquot; he said.
More room to roam in Elkhorns, too
Despite the Elkhorn goats' affinity for rambling off to other mountain ranges, Torland said there's still ample space for the animals in the Elkhorns themselves.
More than 20 years after ODFW let loose the first bunch of goats at Pine Creek, in the southern part of the Elkhorns, the majority of the 170 or so goats in those mountains still live within several miles of where those pioneering goats were released.
Although biologists occasionally see a few goats at the northern end of the Elkhorns, including the Anthony Lakes country and nearby Van Patten Lake, the goats haven't multiplied in those areas as they have to the south, Torland said.
He's not sure why that's so.
Torland speculates, though, that the goats prefer the steeply pitched rockslides which are more numerous in the southern Elkhorns. That part of the range is made mainly of sedimentary rocks which tend to erode into flat, shale-like pieces. The northern half of the Elkhorns is composed of granitic rock, which is more apt to break into roundish boulders.
Regardless, Torland predicts that goats will eventually spread throughout the Elkhorns.
Goats prefer high ground year-round
Mountain goats fear frostbite about as much as they fear falling from cliffs.
Which is not much at all.
Unlike the elk and deer which also populate Northeastern Oregon, mountain goats don't, as a rule, descend during winter to lower elevations where the snow isn't so deep and the windchill temperatures not so often arctic.
andquot;I've been up in the Elkhorns in the dead of winter, and the goats are still up there,andquot; said Ryan Torland, a wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Baker City office.
So how do the goats survive up above 8,000 feet, where the winter climate is sufficiently inhospitable to make even a polar bear shiver?
They horde their energy, for one thing.
Torland said that when he and another ODFW biologist, Brian Ratliff, snowshoed in the Elkhorns near Marble Creek Pass in February 2006, they followed trails which the goats had blazed through the snow.
andquot;They had packed down those trails so hard you could walk without snowshoes,andquot; Torland said.
He said the goats gather on ridgetops where winter gales scour off snow, sometimes down to bare ground. The gusts expose grass and other plants the goats eat, Torland said.
The animals also browse whitebark pine trees, as well as moss and lichens from rocks.
Torland points out that the goats are much less likely to be menaced by cougars and other predators during the winter, because those carnivores follow deer and elk down the mountains.