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Critters of North Idaho: The glorious goat that's not a goat

by CHRISTIAN RYAN/Correspondent to the Press
| December 1, 2020 1:00 AM

Mountain goats truly stand out from the rest. But it is just as accurate to say that they stand far above the rest, as in, anywhere between 3,280 and 16,000 feet (or more!) up in the alpine mountains of western North America.

It’s easy to think of these creatures as little more than goats that like to live at high elevations, but their name can be deceiving. There is a lot more to these mountaineering mammals than first meets the eye.

The first surprise is that the mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus) is actually not a goat. Mountain goats actually belong to a group of hoofed mammals called “goat-antelopes” despite not being closely related to either one. Other members of this group are the chamois of Europe and the goral of east Asia.

The main difference between these goat-like animals and true goats are their heads and horns. Goat-antelope skulls are more lightweight and thinner than those of true goats, and their horns are slender and short, slightly curved back. True goats tend to have much larger horns; even goats with small horns are usually more robust than those of any goat-antelope.

At three and a half feet tall and weighing 100 to 300 pounds, mountain goats are fairly large animals. Their thick, shaggy fur comes in handy up on the mountains they call home. These goats-that-aren’t-goats can only be found high in the steep, rocky alpine cliffs of the Rocky Mountains, from Alaska in the north to Utah and Colorado in the south.

They spend their days looking for vegetation to eat, like grass, mosses, lichens, herbs, sedges and woody plants. Sometimes they have to climb nearly vertical cliff walls to find such food, but they do it with ease. The secret is in their feet: their relatively large and oval-shaped hooves have rubber-like soles adapted to help them clamber up these impossible rock walls. Most of their water comes from the food they eat and year-round snowbanks, which saves them a trip down the mountain when they need to get a drink.

Their white coat helps them blend into the snow. Not that they need to hide from much. Aside from the appropriately named mountain lion, most predators are no match for the mountaineering prowess of the mountain goat. This creates a relatively safe place for these animals to raise their young.

Their habitat even repels most human hunters. While some populations of mountain goats are in decline, their numbers overall are quite strong.

Mountain goat babies, called kids, are born in late spring and early summer. They must quickly learn how to traverse the steep cliffs after their mothers. Fortunately for them, this comes quite naturally.

Sometimes it gets too cold for even a mountain goat, and they must descend to lowland areas in the winter. But as soon as the temperature warms, these mountain goats are back up, climbing sheer cliff walls and standing high above the rest of the goats.

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Ryan