Connecting the Dots in Goat Country

The Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance uses backcountry volunteers to conduct goat surveys in a classic example of citizen science. Biologists use those numbers to make informed management decisions—and in some cases create more hunting opportunities.

As far as western mountains go, the Bridgers just north of Bozeman, Montana, are fairly typical, complete with a number of hiking trails, baggable peaks and a giant “M” slapped on its southernmost end. These mountains, though, are anything but ordinary. The eastern slopes are home to the ski lifts of Bridger Bowl, where Bozeman’s rapidly growing, outdoor-loving population hikes the Bowl’s ridgelines to ski and board its legendary “cold smoke”. In the past decade, the Bridger foothills have exploded with new homes—and an 8,000-acre wildfire in 2020 destroyed 30 of them. The area is the poster-child for the wildland urban interface.

Thriving in the cliffs above this suburban wild is a population of wild mountain goats. But up until recently, biologists had no accurate idea how many goats lived here or how they were doing. Enter the Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance (RMGA).

Based in the western U.S. since 2014, the RMGA is the group looking out for Rocky Mountain goat populations. They allocate funds for research like buying radio collars for an ongoing goat study in Alaska’s Kenai Mountains or a graduate student’s vegetation study in Utah. They educate, too, by helping hunters identify billies from nannies and understanding why proper identification is key before the shot. They help backcountry users understand how to interact with goats on the trail. And, of course, there is the simple act of counting goats on rock walls. Understand, though, there is nothing simple about goat surveys.

“There is a method to the goat counting madness,” says Jason Peak, RMGA Board Chair. “You can see 10-20 goats and then they move on. The person over in the next drainage could see and count those same goats. We don’t want that.” To prevent double counting, RMGA has protocols and procedures to help mitigate that kind of double counting. Counters need to know the difference between a billy and a nanny. Even seasoned hunters have a tough time discerning that, but this is vital information for biologists. That’s where the training comes in.

RMGA trains volunteers on the art of counting goats and then sends a stable of willing volunteers packing into the backcountry. Working with various game management agencies, they facilitate counts in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Utah and South Dakota. Barring any COVID travel curveballs in 2022, Peak hopes they can get surveys done in southern British Columbia around Chilliwack. But honestly, why count goats? What good is a number?

“Surveys depend on the objectives of the agency,” says Peak. “If the survey is to see how many goats are up there so they can account for resource allocation, we can tell them. There have been instances where we have helped determine whether tags should be increased or decreased.” And that was precisely the case in the Bridgers.

Making It Count

Peak volunteered on a goat count in the Bridgers in the last couple of years because Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) didn’t really know how many goats were up there. Quite frankly, getting an accurate population estimate on mountain goats is down right tough. Julie Cunningham is a biologist for Montana FWP, and she says the agency has never been able to fly the Bridgers well enough for solid counts. When you put boots on the ground, she says, the numbers are more accurate. If, as in the case of the Bridgers, you find more goats than you thought you had, you can allocate more hunting opportunities. In 2020, the agency offered a total of six tags for the Bridgers compared to the past three years, which only offered five. All told, the 2019 count found an all-time high for the unit with 127 goats.

“I don’t want to say RMGA can take all the credit for that additional tag, but we had a lot of boots on the ground for those surveys,” says Peak. “One tag may not seem like a lot, but when you look at all that goes into the count, adding that one extra tag is huge. Plus, that’s one more person who gets to hunt a goat that year. That means alot to that person, to their family who is likely going with them, and maybe the outfitter gets more business to take them in there.”

In contrast, if you count fewer goats than an agency thinks it has, that sends up a red flag to biologists. It tells those resource managers that something might be going on because goats don’t tend to get the headlines like a record-book mule deer buck or bighorn ram. They are the “bastards'' of the wildlife management world, says Peak. And he’s not wrong. Goats are never front and center when it comes to funding. “But they are here, and there are people who care about them. If you really watch them, they’re so cool. Just watch them move. They’re like big white gorillas on the rocks.”

If fewer “rock gorillas” are counted on the landscape, then the agency might be more willing to invest more time and money into the resource. But that might never happen if it weren’t for RMGA’s dedicated volunteers. “We’ve got the coolest group of members because they're not just throwing money around,” says Peak. “We’re a boots on the ground group of people, and they're willing to get those boots dirty.”

To learn how you can get involved with RMGA and count some goats in your favorite range, visit www.goatalliance.org.