It’s not just furry sea critters gathering in huge numbers in Washington this summer.
Nearly 100 mountain goats were spotted near Mt. Baker last month, the largest bunch that three wildlife biologists have ever observed in the state.
Aerial photos taken during a late July survey show 66 adults and 24 kids on a snowbank and rocky mountain slope.
WDFW’s special species manager Rich Harris said it was the most he’s seen in one group, while district wildlife biologist Fenner Yarborough said a quick review of the records for the area didn’t turn up any others that large.
“That is definitely a large group of mountain goats – in fact, the largest I’m aware of from Washington,” added the agency’s goat guru, Cliff Rice.
This end of the Cascades does happen to be the species’ stronghold. A 2012 WDFW report put goat numbers in the Mt. Baker Zone at 442.
That means last month’s gathering, which was first reported in the Wildlife Program’s weekly report for July 25, could represent a fifth of all the goats around Washington’s northernmost Cascades volcano.
There are 21 WDFW goat zones in the Cascades and Olympics.
It seems likely that these have probably wandered off from each other since Yarborough snapped pics of them.
Rice, who has seen as many as 70 together in the well-named Goat Rocks at the other end of Washington’s Cascades, notes that their gatherings are pretty dynamic.
“While there are very likely individuals who are nearly always together, large groups like this are temporary amalgamations of smaller groups,” he says. “I don’t know that there is a specific ‘why’ – just that group-living animals are in groups for the advantages, that for mountain goats (are) probably mostly for predator detection. However, one has to then share forage resources – or compete for them – with the rest of the group. So, there’s probably a constant dynamic interplay of these two competing goals which have multiple influences, like the number of animals in the vicinity and the habitat to support them, openness of the terrain, and abundance of forage.”
A WDFW webpage suggests that large herds can form where there’s good forage and/or mineral licks to be had in early summer in the heights. Rice came up with the classifications “commuters,” “sojourners” and “residents” to describe how often radio-collared goats visited licks in a 2011 study.
Washington’s overall population of mountain goats was estimated at between 2,401 and 3,184 in 2012. It’s believed to have declined from 10,000 in the early 1960s. WDFW says the Mt. Baker Zone herd is “stable.”
Hunting is pretty tightly controlled, with only a limited number of once-in-a-lifetime permits (a total of 27 this year) given out annually by WDFW and for just the strongest concentrations of animals. Both the state and tribes survey the hunted herds. A new travel management plan for the Nooksack Ranger District could impact state access to large portions of two hunting units near Mt. Baker.