In the land of the goats

Photo by Chuck BrittonA nanny goat and her kid cross a rockslide on the shore of lower Twin Lake in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City. The nanny’s ragged appearance is typical as the animals shed their thick winter coat of wool that allows them to live year-round at elevations above 8,000 feet.

As we watched mountain goats saunter across nearly sheer rock, frolic on snowdrifts and crop alpine wildflowers, I had a sudden and almost painful hankering for an elephant ear.

I trust I need not explain this compulsion, at least at its most basic level.

The allure of deep-fried bread, its bubbly brown surface glistening with rich oil and dusted with cinnamon and sugar, is obvious to anybody with functioning tastebuds.

But this particular moment of acute appetite stimulation was not an altogether random one.

The gamboling goats had something to do with it.

As did the location.

On July 28 my son Max, who’s 8, and my brother-in-law, Chuck Britton, hiked about 4 miles — uphill most of the way, as it was in the old days, allegedly — to reach the great goat sanctuary that is Twin Lakes.

This pair of tarns lies near the head of a glacier-gouged valley in the Elkhorn Mountains, a place that harbors a substantial proportion of the range’s mountain goat population.

During a goat census of the Elkhorns that took place July 16-17 and involved 22 people, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) counted about 100 goats in the Twin Lakes basin, said Justin Primus, assistant district wildlife biologist at the agency’s Baker City office.

That’s about 27% of the approximately 366 goats that inhabit the whole of the Elkhorns — the highest number ODFW has ever counted in the range.

Primus said the Twin Lakes area attracts goats in part because it’s rich in grasses, flowers and other vegetation the animals like to eat.

The basin also lies just a few miles from the site where ODFW created the Elkhorn Mountain goat herd by releasing 21 goats, in the Pine Creek drainage, between 1983 and 1986 (those goats were trapped in Idaho, Alaska and Washington). The nimble animals have thrived in the Elkhorns during the ensuing three and a half decades.

As for my pressing need for an elephant ear, the story starts a couple months ago, and most of the way across Oregon, at one of the state’s more popular tourist attractions.

I went to the Oregon Zoo, in Portland’s West Hills, in early June.

The zoo has a mountain goat enclosure, and although I probably could toss a baseball clear across it (albeit with a high probability of complete rotator cuff failure), the only part of a goat I saw was a brief glimpse of white wool.

And so it struck me, as we relaxed on a boulder beside the lower (and larger) of the Twin Lakes and watched better than two dozen goats ramble about in the sunshine, that sometimes it’s easier to see wildlife in the wild than in a place where their movements are rigidly constrained.

It also struck me, and especially my stomach, that I was famished.

And that, although Twin Lakes clearly trumps the Oregon Zoo in mountain goat accessibility, the zoo, among its many other attributes, boasts the singular, but significant, advantage of selling elephant ears.

As well as ice cream bars and nachos and ice-choked sodas and much else of a satisfying, if in many cases nutritionally questionable, nature.

At Twin Lakes if you want something sweet — or at any rate sweeter than the (filtered) water from one of the lakes — you have to lug it up there.

The goats at Twin Lakes are something of a tourist attraction — charismatic megafauna that are far more accommodating photo subjects than most wild animals.

(Also more accommodating than many pets, come to that.)

But in common with certain other natural phenomenon that also entice visitors to focus on their camera and briefly ignore their surroundings, the goats pose a potential threat.

The Grand Canyon, to cite one inanimate example, is famously photogenic. And quite a number of people have plunged into its maw who, while trying to create the perfect tableau, momentarily forgot they were shuffling around at the edge of one of the world’s great chasms.

It is, naturally, the last misstep many of these people ever take.

The Twin Lakes goats are nothing like as dangerous as a 2,000-foot cliff, to be sure. So far as I know they haven’t hurt anybody.

Primus said that although ODFW has received reports over several years from people who, while camped at Twin Lakes, were a bit leery of the goats’ nonchalant attitude toward the presence of people, he too hasn’t heard of a goat actually hurting anybody there or elsewhere in the Elkhorns.

But they’re certainly capable.

If ever one of these muscular animals loses its patience with a camera-toting hiker — well, I would not wish to be the person who suddenly is confronted with flying hooves and a pair of thrusting black horns that vaguely resemble parallel bayonets.

(Both males and females bear the horns, unlike, for instance, deer, elk and other antlered mammals in which the head adornments are limited to males.)

Any wild animal can attack, of course.

It’s not as if we have signed non-aggression pacts with certain species, after all.

Yet any wildlife biologist can tell you that, generally speaking, a wild animal presents a greater threat if it’s not afraid of people.

Which the Twin Lakes goats most assuredly are not.

They behave rather like cattle — placid in the presence of humans, and inclined to retreat only with a certain grudging insouciance.

These goats show almost nothing of the skittishness that we tend to expect of wild, hoofed mammals such as deer and elk, which almost always flee posthaste the instant they see a person (or, often as not, given the sensitivity of their senses, they smell or hear one).

This is in part because the goats are not often hunted, Primus said.

ODFW sells 8 tags yearly to hunt goats in the Elkhorns. The agency encourages, but doesn’t mandate, that hunters target billy goats.

“A mountain goat, most of the time when it sees a person, nothing really happens,” Primus said. “It’s not like a deer, which is more likely to get shot at.”

In 2010 an adult male mountain goat killed a hiker in Washington’s Olympic National Park, goring him in the leg.

After I camped overnight at Twin Lakes several years ago — a trip during which a group of goats milled around camp almost constantly, unperturbed by the rocks I chucked in their direction occasionally — I asked Primus about the animals.

He pointed out that the goat that gored the hiker in the Olympics was a lone billy that had menaced other hikers along a popular trail in the national park.

He said lone billy goats tend to be more aggressive than the herds of nannies, kids and yearlings that make up most of the goats that congregate at Twin Lakes and at some other places in the Elkhorns.

Primus told me this week that billies tend to stay away from the nannies and kids during the summer. The goats’ breeding season is mainly in November, and although he said billies might be more likely to be aggressive then, there are few if any campers, except hunters, in the high Elkhorns at that time.

Officials from ODFW and the Forest Service are aware of the proliferation of goats at Twin Lakes, and of the animals’ predilection for nosing around in camps.

The goats, it turns out, feel much the same about salt as I do about elephant ears.

And the animals, in that uncanny way that animals have, recognize that the presence of people means an abundance of clothing and backpack hip belts and trekking pole handles and other items soaked with salt-laden sweat.

Also there are no toilets at Twin Lakes.

And urine, like sweat, is rich in salts.

Hikers and backpackers are in effect a walking salt lick.

ODFW has posted signs at several trailheads, including Twin Lakes, warning visitors that they’ll likely encounter goats, and reminding people not to feed the animals.

(No more than is necessary, that is — hikers aren’t required to haul out their bodily fluids in water-tight containers or anything.)

ODFW has tried to discourage the goats — or rather, to encourage them to obtain their salt somewhere other than from hikers’ soaked socks — by placing salt blocks at several sites on the rocky slopes above the lakes, away from places where people camp.

Primus said the agency continues to do that, and based on the diminished size of the blocks each year, it’s clear the goats find them.

“Whether it has decreased human-goat interactions I’m not sure,” Primus said.

Because the Twin Lakes basin offers the enticement of abundant forage, the goats are likely to congregate there in any case, he said, and they seem to take their salt wherever they can find it.

“They’re fairly habitual in where they want to be,” Primus said.

Whatever benefits the salt block tactic has had seem to be limited, as the goats were as untroubled by our presence last month as they were when I last camped at Twin Lakes in August 2014.

On our way to the lakes we passed several backpackers who were returning to the trailhead, and to a person they grinned when queried about the goats, saying that the animals were as persistent, and nosy, as I had remembered.

I didn’t ask about elephant ears.

Elkhorns: Oregon’s goat incubator

The mountain goats that inhabit several other ranges in Oregon are the offspring of animals that grew up in the Elkhorn Mountains.

Goats have been prolific enough in the Elkhorns to serve as the seed stock for, among other newly established herds, ones in Hells Canyon, the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness in Union County, the Strawberry Mountains south of Prairie City, and the Mount Jefferson region in the central Cascades of Oregon.

Over the past 15 years or so the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), utilizing an overhead net, has captured more than 130 goats near Goodrich Reservoir, in the Baker City watershed. Most of these goats were transplanted elsewhere in Oregon, including in the nearby Wallowa Mountains, which already had a goat population.

Goats netted at Goodrich Lake have also been hauled to other states.

The trap-and-transplant program has been so successful, in fact, that ODFW didn’t have any requests for goats in 2017 or 2018, so none was netted in those years at Goodrich Lake, said Justin Primus, assistant district wildlife biologist at ODFW’s Baker City office.

This year, in the final week of July, ODFW trapped seven goats at Goodrich and moved them across Baker Valley to the southern Wallowas.

Primus said four of those goats were fitted with tracking collars. ODFW’s goal is to use these goats to check the effectiveness of the automatic cameras that have been stationed in the Wallowas to photograph goats and help biologists estimate the population, he said.

The agency’s ultimate goal is to create a new mountain goat hunt, with a single tag per year to start, in the southern Wallowas. ODFW sells seven tags to hunt mountain goats in the northern and eastern Wallowas annually. In all the agency issues 24 tags per year, including hunts in Hells Canyon, the Strawberry Mountains and in the Wenaha unit.

Native or not?

There’s no definitive answer to the question of whether mountain goats are native to the Elkhorn Mountains.

A 1905 report from zoologist Madison Grant contends that mountain goats had lived in the Wallowa Mountains, and in the Mount Jefferson area of Central Oregon, but had been extirpated from both areas by the 20th century.

Grant doesn’t mention the Elkhorns, but considering the confirmed movements of goats from the Elkhorns since 21 animals were released there from 1983 to 1986 — individual animals have roamed as far as Mitchell, in Wheeler County — it’s plausible that in centuries past goats, were they present in the Wallowas, would have migrated to the similar habitat of the Elkhorns.


Jayson has worked at the Baker City Herald since November 1992, starting as a reporter. He has been editor since December 2007. He graduated from the University of Oregon Journalism School in 1992 with a bachelor's degree in news-editorial journalism.

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