Symbol of the high country | VailDaily.com

Symbol of the high country

Rick Spitzer
Special to the Daily

AVON — Wildlife photographers are always after the classic shot of whatever animal they are pursuing. One day on Mount Evans I stumbled on to that opportunity twice. I saw a Rocky Mountain goat in the rocks above me. Getting close to these animals on Mount Evans is not because you stalk them. If you watch where they are headed, you can often get into position and wait for them to come to you. On that day, that was my strategy.

I drove on up the road to a turnout, parked the car and headed up through the huge boulders. I had put the camera in my pack because I was using both hands to keep my balance on boulders, some the size of Volkswagens. As I went around a large rock I paused to catch my breath and looked up. There, less than 50 feet in front of me was a huge billy, a male Rocky Mountain goat (Oreamnos americanus). I could not believe what I was looking at. I was face to face with this spectacular animal. I sat down, took out the camera and using a very short zoom lens was able to fill the viewfinder. I was so close I could hear him breathing. After a dozen shots, and about 15 minutes sitting there, he got bored with me, got up and slowly wandered away. I had a very memorable experience.

Mount Evans has a band of Rocky Mountain goats that are often found near the summit around the parking lot and restrooms at 14,000 feet. I have watched the goats walk between the people standing in line for the restroom and even blocking the visitor's path showing no concern whatsoever. They are after the salt that had been used for ice on the sidewalks.

Colorado origins

Mountain goats were introduced into Colorado in 1947 as a deliberate attempt to expand hunting opportunities. A total of 14 goats were captured in Montana and were released in the Collegiate Range. In later years, goats were brought to Colorado from Idaho, South Dakota and British Columbia. They are now in many areas of Colorado and the statewide population is estimated to be in excess of 2,000 animals. They were declared a native species by the Colorado Wildlife Commission in 1993. Biologists can find no evidence that the Rocky Mountain goat is an endemic species in Colorado, though some frequently like to argue with them about that. One fossil, believed to be from Oreamonos and about 800,000 years old, was found in Porcupine Cave, 35 miles south of Fairplay.

The question is, how many goats were in Colorado 100 to 200 years ago? Even today people who see bighorns call them goats, so the reports of goats by early travelers and miners is somewhat suspect. To add to the confusion Lewis and Clark properly described a Rocky Mountain goat but called them "mountain sheep." In reality, if you know the species, it is impossible to misidentify them. Bighorns are brown and tan all over, with light gray on the underbelly and backs of the legs. The brown color also includes hooves and horns. The fur is thick but short. Male bighorns have big curling horns that can reach 30 inches in length and 15 inches in circumference.

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Rocky Mountain goats are all white and have black horns and black hooves. They are covered with long hair with a wooly undercoat and are often rather mangy looking in the spring. That hair helps them survive temperatures as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit and alpine winds that often exceed 125 mph. Goats shed the hair in the spring, and I have observed them shaking their bodies, like a dog out of water, to get rid of massive patches of hair. Goat horns tend to be a spike rarely more than 10 inches long and only a few inches in circumference. Determining the gender is not easy. Male horns are closer together and have a thicker base than the female goats that have shorter horns with less curve and less taper. Most of the goat's horn growth occurs in the first three years. Just like the horns of bighorns, the annular rings can help to estimate their age. Mountain goats are very unique because of their coats and horns.

Mount Evans residents

Males are called billies and may be up to 5 feet long and only weigh around 250 pounds. They have beards and short tails. The females called nannies are smaller. Just like bighorns, these animals are much smaller than they appear. The young are called kids and they are usually born in May or June. There are occasional twins. Babies are on their feet within minutes of birth. Males, females, and the young tend to stay together in bands most of the year. Males occasionally are found on their own in the summer.

They spend most of their lives in the alpine regions above treelike, but occasionally descend into the krummholz and open slopes below the treeline in severe weather. They feed on the grasses, shrubs, lichens and mosses on the windswept slopes of alpine tundra. Mountain goats are found all over Rockies from Colorado on North, Coast Range, and the Cascades.

A goat's hooves are cloven and spread apart to improve traction on the rocks. Their climbing abilities are a marvel to watch. They can jump spans up to 12 feet. Their only predator may be mountain lions, but few of those cats wander up to that elevation. Hunters may harvest 100 to 200 goats per year.

Rocky Mountain goats are really not goats. Wild goats and domestic goats come from the genus Capra. Rocky Mountain goats belong to the subfamily Caprinae (goat-antelopes). The genus species name comes from Oreamnos (Greek term for "mountain" or "mountain nymph" and the word "amnos" for "lamb."

In Colorado, Rocky Mountain goats can often be found near the higher roads and passes of the state and on many of the 14ers. The best place to observe them near here is on the road to the top of Mount Evans at 14,264 feet. They are also in the Tenmile Range, Collegiate Peaks and the Mosquito Range. Goats from the Mount Evans herd have even been found in Rocky Mountain National Park. Park Service biologists believe the goats will spread disease among bighorn sheep and also compete for food. They have a policy to remove them.

Along with the bighorn sheep the Rocky Mountain goat is truly a symbol of the majestic high country of Colorado.

Rick Spitzer is the author of Colorado Mountain Passes, published by Westcliffe Publishers and available at the Bookworm, City Market, Amazon and many stores across the state. The book provides photos and text about the history, lore, wildlife and scenery around the passes of Colorado.