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Rocky Mountain goat: plan on climbing near impossible slopes to reach this native North American goat.

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The Rocky Mountain goat must rank as one of North Americas most underrated game animals. Though sadly cheated in the horn department, he is striking in appearance--especially with the mountain winds rippling his full winter coat. Although billies often have a slight yellowish cast--and just as often are stained gray from talus slopes--the Rocky Mountain goat is pure white in pelage, with black hooves, black nose, and short, needle-sharp black horns. The billies are stout, imposing animals that, in full coat, look even bigger than they are because of long hair all around.

What makes them interesting to the hunter, however, is that goats thrive where wild sheep fear to tread. They are perfectly comfortable on 60- to 70-degree slopes and will almost always have "escape habitat" nearby. You can take that to mean really nasty, near-vertical stuff where predators cannot follow. Over the years I've seen goats in amazing places, but I'll never forget some goats Jack Atcheson Jr. and I saw one day while sheep hunting in one of Montana's unlimited permit zones, a charming place called "Froze to Death Plateau." We didn't have goat tags, and it was just as well ... these goats were happily working back and forth on a dizzying cliff, probably 50 yards below the top and a couple hundred yards straight down.

This is a common problem with goat hunting. With a rifle you can often figure out how to get a shot. However, you also have to consider where the goat might go after the shot and if you will be able to get to it and make a safe recovery. You will see many goats where the answer is "no," and you have no choice but to look for another goat or wait until it moves into a better spot. This may take days, or it may never happen. Goats are fairly sedentary, often moving only small distances between food, water, and bedding grounds.

Although goats are surprisingly vulnerable to predators, the best tactic is always to get above them if possible, as they tend to expect danger from below, not above. Their eyesight is their first line of defense, followed by the sense of smell. There's nothing wrong with their hearing, but they live in a world where rolling rocks are common. Stay out of sight, keep the wind right, and avoid "human sounds," such as voices, anything metallic, or the creaking of gear, and you can often get as close as the terrain will allow.

The Rocky Mountain goat is purely a North American animal, Oreamnos americanus, a genus with one species and no identified subspecies. Our goat is remotely related to the rock goats of Europe and Asia--the widely distributed chamois and the lesser-known goral--but has no close relatives anywhere in the world. It occurs from southeast Alaska south through the coastal ranges to the Columbia River in Washington, east through Idaho to western Montana, and on north up the Rockies of Alberta and British Columbia to southern Yukon and the southwest corner of the MacKenzies.

The goat is hardy and has proven itself highly adaptable to introduction and reintroduction. By the early 20th century many populations were depleted from overhunting, but in recent decades goats have been successfully returned to many historic habitats, and populations have been established far outside their native ranges, including in Colorado, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

NATURAL HISTORY

The Rocky Mountain goat is a mixed feeder, meaning it both browses and grazes, and is able to do well in surprisingly sparse habitat. Males tend to be fairly solitary or, occasionally, in small bachelor groups. Nannies and kids join up in larger groups; a dozen is common, and groups up to 50 have been recorded. Mature billies can weigh up to 300 pounds and more, with nannies considerably smaller. Both sexes have horns, and it is indeed very difficult to tell them apart. For this reason both sexes are usually legal game, but effort is always made to identify a male. Horns are of similar length, but the billy's horns are thicker at the base. A lone animal with a slight yellowish cast to the coat is most likely to be a billy, but trophy judgment on goats is probably the most difficult of all North American species. Hunters drive themselves insane trying to be sure, and even the most experienced guide will occasionally make the wrong call.

Depending on the latitude, goats start to come into their winter coats in late September, with mating season in late October through November to early December. Kids are born six months later in late spring. Single offspring are normal with twins uncommon, which is why goats are relatively slow breeders. They are hardier than sheep and much more disease-resistant but are susceptible--especially the kids--to predation by golden eagles, wolves, cougars, bears, and even lynx and wolverine. Once goats approach maturity, however, natural mortality is greatly reduced. Lifespan in the wild can be 16 years, but very few goats survive beyond 11 or 12.

BEST HUNTING OPPORTUNITIES

British Columbia has the largest population and the greatest density, with billy goats dying of old age every year in all her remote ranges. Alaska and British Columbia essentially split the top 20 places in Boone and Crockett; the only other state or province represented is a Utah goat in a multiple tie for eighteenth place.

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SHOOTING AND SHOT PLACEMENT

Although the goat is a tall and heavy animal, it is slab-sided, narrow between the shoulders. I believe a fairly quick-opening bullet is best, but keep this in mind: A goat will drive toward its escape cover if it has the strength, so it is critical to try to anchor the goat. Shoot for the center of the shoulder, not behind the shoulder, and if the goat isn't down, shoot again. It will get into cliffs if it can, and then you have a problem. Ideal calibers range from the .270s up through the .30s.

MOUNTAIN GOAT FACTS

POPULATION

Although limited in both range and habitat, Rocky Mountain goats are generally stable or increasing. Current population throughout their range is perhaps 115,000, with about a third in the United States.

MOST EXPENSIVE HUNTS

Guided hunts in Canada and Alaska.

LEAST EXPENSIVE HUNTS

Get in the permit draws and go hunting!

DID YOU KNOW?

The only surefire way to tell a billy from a nanny is to study the base of the horns. Only males have black scent glands, sort of like pads, visible at the rear bases of the horns.

The goat's hooves are made for climbing and gripping. The toes spread out for braking or clamp together like pliers; the inner surface is soft and spongy, gripping amost like suction cups.

FOR FURTHER READING

A century ago the Rocky Mountain goat was considered a greater prize than the then more plentiful bighorn sheep. Check out William T. Hornaday's Campfires in the Canadian Rockies (1906).
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Title Annotation:species Spotlight
Author:Boddington, Craig
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Date:Oct 1, 2016
Words:1162
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