Baker County's mountain goat population is so bountiful these days
that we can afford to share with Oregon's biggest mountain range.
A group of 45 goats that were born and reared in the Elkhorn
Mountains west of Baker City today ramble across the volcanic slopes of
the state's second-tallest peak.
That's 10,495-foot Mount Jefferson, in the central Cascades between Mount Hood and the Three Sisters.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife trapped the goats last
week at Goodrich Lake, about 12 miles northwest of Baker City, then
trucked the animals a couple hundred miles west to the Confederated
Tribes of the Warm Springs reservation near Madras.
The goats were released along Upper Whitewater River on July 27.
Mountain goats were extirpated from the Cascades south of the Columbia River Gorge more than 100 years ago, according to ODFW.
Agency officials plan to transplant more goats into the Cascades, in the Three-Fingered Jack and Three Sisters regions, in the future.
And if that plan comes to pass, those goats, like those of the new Mount Jefferson herd, probably will hail from Baker County.
The Elkhorns, after all, have been the state's sole source of transplant goats for a decade.
During that time ODFW has trapped almost 200 goats at Goodrich Lake and moved them to other suitable habitat in the state.
Most of those goats have gone to the nearby Wallowa Mountains or to Hells Canyon; ODFW also has moved goats from the Elkhorns to the Strawberry Mountains south of Prairie City, and to the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness in northern Union County.
Which is not to say the goats need a truck to get around.
Goats have migrated on their own accord from the Elkhorns to the Greenhorn Mountains, to Dixie Butte and to the Strawberrys.
In the mid 1990s a young billy goat strayed as far as Mitchell, where it got trapped in a sheep pen.
Drivers on Interstate 84 occasionally see a goat or two on the basalt bluffs above the Grande Ronde River near Perry, a few miles west of La Grande.
The rapid growth in the Elkhorn goat population is one of ODFW's major mammal reintroduction success stories.
The whole thing started with just 21 goats released along Pine Creek, one ridge north of Goodrich, in three separate operations between 1983 and 1986.
Today ODFW biologists, who count goats in the Elkhorns every summer, figure about 400 of the nimble cliff-dwellers live in the range.
Besides being the seed source for goat herds elsewhere in Oregon, the Elkhorn population was also the first in which hunting was allowed since the late 1960s.
Since 1997 ODFW has sold at least one goat-hunting tag for the Elkhorns every year.
This year, four of the once-in-a-lifetime tags were awarded through the state's lottery system - two tags for the early season in mid-September, and two for the late hunt in October.
The Warm Springs tribes don't intend to allow their members to hunt goats on the reservation until the herd numbers at least 50 goats for five consecutive years.
"It is exciting that the tribes are getting a native animal back to its home range and another opportunity to experience traditional hunting," said Robert Brunoe, general manager of natural resources for the Warm Springs tribes.
Although records document the presence of mountain goats as species native to Oregon, precisely where the animals lived historically is a matter of some dispute.
Dick Humphreys, who worked as ODFW's head wildlife biologist in Baker County from 1966-95, said in a 2000 interview that although he first proposed to transplant goats to the Elkhorns in the 1970s, his agency's uncertainty about whether the animal is native to the range is one reason his plan didn't come to fruition until 1983.
Humphreys' successor, George Keister, who himself retired in 2007, came across a document during his tenure that bolstered the notion that mountain goats were native not only to Oregon in general, but to the Elkhorns in particular.
The document is an article published in the New York Zoological Society's 1905 annual report. Its author is Madison Grant, the Society's secretary.
Grant wrote that mountain goats were confirmed - although not in 1905 - in the Cascades as far south as Mount Jefferson.
In 1905, according to Grant's story, "probably the only place where the goat exists in the State of Oregon is in the mountains in Wallowa County."
Both Keister and Humphreys contend that if goats lived then in the Wallowas, then the animals survived in the Elkhorns as well.
The habitat in the two ranges, which are less than 30 miles apart, is similar.
Grant also addressed a common misnomer about mountain goats that persists today, 105 years later.
The animals are not, biologically speaking, goats at all.
"It is not a goat, nor even closely related to them," Grant wrote, "but is the sole representative on this continent, of a very aberrant group of so-called mountain antelopes known to science as the Rupicaprinae."
There are five species in that group, including the chamois of the Alps.