Glacier’s mountain goats: Alpine icon under observation
By Becky Lomax
Mark Biel, natural resources program manager for Glacier National Park, estimates that up to 100 mountain goats hang around the Logan Pass in the park’s sweeping, scenic and well-traveled zone between Hidden Lake, Haystack Butte and the East Side Tunnel. Delighted visitors frequently encounter the high alpine icons in the parking lot and on the Hidden Lake and Highline trails.
Those encounters are under observation.
That’s in part because the human footprint is growing in Glacier National Park.
Despite a well-used shuttle system designed to reduce vehicles on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, the Logan Pass parking lot still fills to capacity in midsummer by 10 a.m., and hikers have increased by 250 percent on some corridor trails. In addition to vehicle congestion and crowding on trails, the human footprint has upped pressure on wildlife, smashed vegetation, trampled trails wider, and spread non-native invasive plants at all shuttle stops.
The National Park Service – charged with balancing the delicate interplay between the visitor experience and protecting park resources – launched a Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor study to gather data to design a management plan. In addition to evaluating how to make the shuttle system financially viable, the plan aims to address congestion on the road and trails with an eye to the future. It’s a journey to answer the question of how to manage higher visitation, respond to future impacts and better protect resources.
To get tabs on the human footprint, the study is collecting data on levels of use and time of use on trails, roads and in parking lots.
But one of the big concerns is the increased pressure on wildlife, specifically with the interaction between humans and mountain goats in the Logan Pass area.
That’s where Biel comes in.
“We’re hoping that the study will give us a better idea of how to manage human interactions with wildlife,” Biel said. “Because mountain goats are so accessible at Logan Pass, it’s the poster child for human and wildlife interaction.”
Biel readily admits that little is known about mountain goats. Biologists don’t even know if the same goats hang out at Logan Pass year to year, or if the Haystack and Hidden Lake Overlook herds interchange with each other.
“We don’t even know when they come down from the cliffs. No research has occurred on mountain goats in the Logan Pass area to determine what impacts, if any, the high number of park visitors and associated trails and road may be having on mountain goats. We hope to learn more about the type and intensity of wildlife-human interactions as well as gain a better understanding of mountain goat movements on the landscape,” he said.
The three-year study, now in year two, is gathering data in several ways, including outfitting 20 mountain goats with radio and GPS collars. The effort unites the collaboration of biologists from the National Park Service, University of Montana and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.
Last summer, the biologists collared six adult goats – one male and five females – that will wear the collars until they are programmed to fall off in 2016. The less expensive collars contain radio transmitters that provide information only when the goats are tracked on foot or by air. Two of the females sport pricey GPS collars, which log their locations every two hours by satellite. As of the end of May, Biel had received more than 3,300 data points per goat.
The GPS collars should reveal mountain goat movement patterns: how and when they use roads and trails.
“We want to develop base line of the use, so we can manage human interactions effectively,” Biel said.
Even though Glacier’s mountain goat population seems healthy to Biel, the collaring process yields a chance to gather further data. At least one collaring occurred adjacent to the Hidden Lake Overlook Trail, offering hikers a rare look at the process. During the 20-30 minutes that the goat is sedated, biologists take blood, hair, mucus and fecal samples to assess health. Biologists hope tests can also reveal the levels of metabolites in goats that might come from licking antifreeze in the parking lots.
Biel hopes to answer one question: why goats hang out right near trails with so much human traffic?
Biologists speculate goats might be attracted to places where the number of humans may provide refuge from predators. This year, they aim to test that theory by dispersing bear and wolf scat in locations to see if the goats steer clear and broadcasting sounds of predators from a speaker to see how the goats react.
Because individual goats are hard to distinguish from one another, biologists may start marking some goats with a paintball pistol to observe repeated behaviors or interactions with visitors that may adversely affect the goats or humans. Before the paint fades away within two weeks, biologists should be able to track the goat’s movements by eyesight from a distance. Since the paintball pistol will also stimulate pain without injury, similar to hazing methods used on bears, biologists can also gather data on this technique as a method to condition goats to stay away from high use trails or other areas.
Wesley Sarmento, a graduate student from the University of Montana, plays a hefty day-to-day role in the mountain goat research. For 60 days last summer, he spent 12 hours per day keeping tabs on mountain goats at Logan Pass. On the Highline Trail, he watched goats block hikers from passing. He observed goats licking salts off handrails and places on the ground where people urinated. He saw a nanny charge when a person stepped between her and her kid. He spotted a feeding goat oblivious to a grizzly bear nearby, supporting the theory that the goats feel protected around humans.
Repeatedly, he noted positive visitor responses to the goats.
“People really enjoy seeing the goats,” he said. “Having close encounters with wildlife is an extraordinary experience, especially with the usually cliff-loving goats. For many people, it’s the highlight of their trip.”
Despite seemingly docile encounters between goats and people, Sarmento adds that visitors still need to maintain distance with the goats because any wild animal can be deadly.
While mountain goat research will aid the park service in understanding human-wildlife interactions, climate warming could pressure wildlife more with additional visitors.
“What if changing climate allows for earlier road openings and later closings, elongating the visitor season? What happens if visitation increases 10-15 percent? What does that translate to hikers on trails, cars on the road, and visitors trying to park?” Mary Riddle, chief of planning and environmental compliance for Glacier Park, poses the questions the park service must answer in the corridor study.
Visitors will help provide the answers. This summer, the park service will administer visitor surveys at multiple locations to assess public reactions to possible future management actions, some submitted by the public last year. Some potential actions may alter how visitors use the park: regulating certain trails with day permits, charging for parking at Logan Pass, not allowing overnight parking at Logan Pass, putting a time limit on parking at Logan Pass and Avalanche, hardening trails like the Avalanche Trail to accommodate higher use levels, making the Highline Trail one way during peak season, eliminating shuttle stops at some trailheads, or requiring a shuttle to access some trails.
“We want to hear from the public as this plan progresses and get their thoughts, ideas, reactions and preferences,” Riddle said. “We need their input so together we can develop a plan that will assure protection of park’s resources and provide continued opportunities for visitors to experience and enjoy this special place.”
Whatever the study finds, it may eventually change the shape of the human footprint, as well as how we interact with Glacier’s alpine icon mountain goats.
Becky Lomax is a longtime Montana Magazine contributor. She writes from Whitefish.