Mountain goats have been described as "supreme mountaineers," can appear somewhat professorial in appearance with their goatees, and have uncanny agility. Now, in the tragic wake of a hiker being fatally gored in the Olympic National Park backcountry, some might also describe them as killers.
Killers not in the same category as mountain lions or grizzly bears, but armed with deadly horns and an unpredictability that, going forward, should not be underestimated. They are, after all, wild animals. And yet, if you've ever explored Logan Pass in Glacier National Park or been up on Klahhane Ridge in Olympic, mountain goats can seem not only ubiquitous, but even serene, happy to graze while you snap their pictures.
But perhaps only good fortune has stood in the way of more fatal encounters with the goats, such as the one Bob Boardman, of Port Angeles, Washington, had Oct. 16 on a trail near Klahhane Ridge some 17 miles south of Port Angeles. The 63-year-old was protecting other hikers from a goat, estimated at 300 pounds, when it gored him in the thigh and then reportedly stood over him as he bled to death.
In the aftermath of that story another quickly rose to the forefront, one from 1999 in which a hiker was gored by a mountain goat on the flanks of Mount Ellinor in the Olympic National Forest just outside the park's southeast corner. Mike Stocian told the Peninsula Daily News he was putting on ski pants when a goat charged and gored him in the right leg, opening a 4-inch wound that was closed with bandages and duct tape.
At Glacier, park officials say they have no records of goats injuring visitors, although they have had some troublesome goats at Logan Pass.
"We have had 'semi-agressive' goats, particularly in the Logan Pass parking lot," said Jack Potter, Glacier's chief of science and resources management. "We have tried hazing, including the use of pepper spray and the problem has dissipated, although not as a result of the pepper. I have heard about some other behaviors that were more related to salt, antifreeze, and females with young but nothing like that goat in Olympic."
Mountain goats are attracted to salt, and that can be in the form of sweat on the straps of your pack or in your urine. Knowing that, Olympic officials have worked to educate park visitors.
"If you take your backpack off and it has sweaty straps on it, keep the pack close to you, don't walk away from it because the goat or chipmunk would be less likely to approach a backpack if you’re sitting right there with it," said Barb Maynes, the park's spokeswoman. "Avoid urinating on the trail or near the trail because urine is attractive to mountain goats that are seeking the salt."
Hindsight being 20-20, more than a few people have questioned why the park didn't take a more aggressive stance of its own against the eight or so mountain goats that frequent Klahhane Ridge, particularly the one that killed Mr. Boardman, as it had a reputation for being aggressive with hikers.
In parks such as Yellowstone or Yosemite, when aggressive bears are identified they are either removed from the area or removed from the park entirely and at times some areas can be closed to the public until the troublesome animal wanders on. In Yellowstone visitors as they enter the park also are handed fliers specifically warning them to keep a safe distance from bison, which can be highly unpredictably and deadly. And yet, each year a visitor or two usually ends up being gored by a bison in the park.
But in a park where there has been no known record of a mountain goat attacking a visitor, would officials even consider such a possibility and warn visitors about it?
"We’ve been aware that we’ve had a number of comments from visitors, reports from visitors over the last several years, about mountain goats, a mountain goat, exhibiting aggressive types of behavior," Ms. Maynes said. "Because the goats are not marked, they’re not collared, there’s no way to know for sure that all those reports are about just one goat."
And that same time, she continued, "We knew that this particular mountain goat had exhibited some aggressive behavior. We don’t know if that’s the only mountain goat.
“As we've received these reports," Ms. Maynes went on, "as observations have been made over the last several years, we’ve increased our level of monitoring. We wanted to see if the goat crossed the line to where we needed to remove it. And yes, the next step, had we ever seen the goat do something, make some kind of interaction with people and went across that line, then we would have removed it. We have been exploring the possibility of live removal, live capture and relocation.”
Olympic officials did during this past summer increase ranger patrols along the trails leading to Klahhane Ridge to four or five a week to alert visitors to the goats' behavior, and they also tracked and killed the goat that gored Mr. Boardman. Daily patrols on the trails would continue through the fall, they said after the incident.
“We want to be sure that no other goat is behaving aggressively towards people,” Olympic Superintendent Karen Gustin said in a prepared statement early last week. “Saturday’s tragic event was extremely unusual and we are doing everything we can to learn as much as possible about it, and to make sure we’re doing everything we can to prevent something like this from happening again."
Along with awaiting necropsy reports that might shed some light on the goat's behavior -- was it overly territorial and aggressive due to the fall rut? -- Olympic officials have been contacting animal experts to see if there are any insights to gain from elsewhere.
“We have been talking, been in contact with a lot of people about this across the West who have expertise in goats and goat behavior. So far we have not, we haven’t heard of any incidents," Ms. Maynes said last week. "We’re trying to learn as much as we can about this particular incident and learn as much as we can about the big picture. What is it? This is, as far as we can tell, it’s unprecedented, so we’re looking at it real hard and trying to learn as much as possible to prevent anything from happening like this again.”
Barring some information that might lead park officials to be more aggressive in dealing with mountain goats, for now visitors are being cautioned to stay at least 100 feet away from wildlife, and to keep in mind that wild animals can be unpredictable.
"I don’t want to give the impression that anything was done wrong (in Mr. Boardman's case)," Ms. Maynes stressed. "This mountain goat and its behavior was extremely unusual and to our knowledge unprecedented.”