With climbing skills that rival Spiderman’s, striking lab-white fur coats and neat white Paul Bunyan beards, mountain goats are among the most unique mammalian residents of the Black Hills.
Oreamnos americanus are bovid embodiments of American exceptionalism. They are their very own goats. They aren’t members of the Capra clan — neither the It’s a Wonderful Life director or the genus that includes all other goats. Within the Bovidae subfamily of Caprinae, they are the only members of genus Oreamnos.
They haven’t always tested their dexterity against the granite spires of the Black Hills. Their native range, according to the US Forest Service, “occurs from southeastern Alaska south to the Columbia River in Washington; east into Idaho and western Montana; and north to southern Yukon.” During the 20th century they were introduced to several Mountain West states outside their traditional range, including South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and Nevada.
Custer State Park attempted a controlled mountain goat introduction in 1924, but the goats soon escaped their enclosure. Their numbers grew until there were some 300-400 by the 1940s. In the 1970s there was a decline, possibly due to overharvesting. Since the 1980s their numbers have hovered in the low-to-high one hundreds.
South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Regional Wildlife Manager John Kanta estimates that there are about 120 mountain goats in the core range of the Black Hills.
He says that there are several areas conducive to goat spotting. “Mount Rushmore in the mornings is a good spot. You can usually see mountain goats if you hike Harney Peak. There are also mountain goats in Battle Creek running parallel to Highway 40 out of Keystone. In any case, bring good optics so you can scan the rock outcroppings and spot them. Once you find them they are fairly easy to approach.”
If you’re lucky, maybe you’ll score a mountain goat clinic in alpine ascent. “They are very agile on the rocks,” says Kanta. “I have seen them climb right up the side of a granite outcropping. They can do this primarily because of their hooves. The hooves are split. They are wider and fatter than other ungulates (e.g. deer or elk). The bottom of the hooves have sponge like pads. These act as sort of a suction cup.”
Maybe those suction cups explain why they’re sometimes seen in some unlikely spots. If you catch one threading the Needle’s Eye, make sure you get a picture.
The mountain goat mating season is in the late autumn/early winter. “Mountain goats do not put on the same kind of show as a bighorn sheep would,” says Kanta, “with the head butting and all.” However, billies do compete for dibs on nannies. Weber State College Zoology Professor, and Mammals of the Intermountain West author Howard Zeveloff says that, “during the rut, males often threaten and swipe at each other with their horns, occasionally resulting in a death.” Kids (usually one per nanny) are born in the late spring/early summer.
Mountain goat diets are versatile. They can eat grasses, forbs, lichens, twigs, stems, leaves and pine needles. “Compared with other ungulates, predation on mountain goats is uncommon,” according to Zeveloff. In the Black Hills, their only non-human predators are mountain lions and golden eagles. “The lions are capable of following and killing them on some mountain stretches,” says Zeveloff. “Eagles have been known to knock yearlings off cliffs and even carry away the kids.”
SDGFP granted two mountain goat hunting licenses this year, the first open season on Oreamnos americanus in South Dakota in nine years.
Mountain goats tend to congregate in groups called bands. During most of the year, nannies and kids form nursery bands, while billies hang out alone or in their own bachelor bands, which should probably be called billy bands. In some places, bands can reach over 100 strong. Males and females mingle during the winter rut and during summer at mineral licks — naturally occurring licks where goats can replenish necessary minerals insufficient in their diet.
According to the Forest Service, the size of groups may correspond to the overall number of goats in a given range.
On a recent hike, your correspondent came across a group that appeared to be a small nursery band of two nannies and two kids. As with many animals, you're more likely to see them close to dawn or dusk. While a goat is still a goat on the road near Mount Rushmore, if you're like me, you may prefer viewing them in their element, scrambling up sheer rock faces. Who knows, a cold weather hike his time of year may even put you in the floor seats for a billy battle royale.