Category Archives: Mountain Goat

Mountain Goat biology and behavior on Kodiak Island

Summer Friends at Amook Pass

Summer Friends at Amook Pass is a post by my friend, Marcia Messier. I love this humorous story about her animal encounters while she worked for us at Munsey’s Bear Camp. What Marcia doesn’t tell you in this piece is that I named our goat visitor Marcie because the goat’s daring trip each summer from the mountains to the ocean, reminded me of Marcia’s adventurous spirit. Prepare to smile as you read about Marcia’s adventures!

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Summer Friends at Amook Pass

During the summer months at Amook Pass, the animals were my friends. That sounds a bit corny, but they were amusing, startling, and comforting, all that friends should be. I looked forward and anticipated who might stop by for a visit during my busy days.

House Animals

I was privileged to know Gizzy, Fletcher, Elsie, and Olive during my summers at Munsey’s Bear Camp. They were my very best animal friends. I thought it was interesting that Gizzy and Olive had similar personalities as did Fletcher and Elsie; even though, they had never met. Gizzy and Olive were the sweet ladies, soft-spoken, polite, accommodating for a photo, well groomed, and perhaps just a little bit shy of visitors. Fletcher and Elsie, on the other hand, were true wilderness cats. Fletcher was getting along in years when I first met him, but he told me many a hair-raising tale about his hunting skills as a younger gentleman. Elsie was in her prime, and she loved to stalk bears for days on end. Many a time as Robin and I were mourning her early demise, we would hear Mike yell, “Elsie’s back!”, and there she would be, dragging herself through the door, ragged, dirty and ravenously hungry after her latest adventure.

Fletcher and Elsie loved to hunt voles, the tiny mouse-like creatures close to the bottom of the Kodiak food chain. They must be a very tasty snack because twice daily I’d find their tiny blue and green left-over parts deposited on the front door step. I used to tell myself they were loving gifts, but then again, whoever left the pieces always seemed slightly amused when I reached down to pluck the bits off the doorstep while making slight gagging sounds.

Freddie the Weasel became a daily late-afternoon house guest. Maybe the sound of the old generator starting up interrupted his afternoon nap. He’d shoot in the backdoor, zip through the kitchen and take cover under the couch in the living room to watch and learn about life in the big house. At first, I jumped and shrieked thinking he must be some kind of Kodiak rat, but later in the day, Robin calmly explained about weasels.

Gizzy and Fletcher were still with us then but getting along in years. They knew their limitations, so they decided to pretend Freddie was just a figment of my over-active imagination. Not wanting to insult them, I went along with the game and soon we all looked forward to Freddie’s daily antics. I knew when he heard the boat motoring up to the mooring; I would see the tail end of Freddie flip out the front door.

Yard Animals

Early in the summer season, the female Sitka deer would bring their fawns into the yard to nibble the bright green salad-like greens growing around the cabins. Sometimes there would be twins, and I would think happy thoughts as I watched them through the kitchen window while preparing breakfast.

One day I came nose to nose with a deer! I was hurrying to the cabin with a load of fresh laundry, and we met coming around the corner at the same instant. We were both startled and just stared dumbfounded into each other’s eyes for a moment. I’m not sure who moved first, but a hunter later told me I was lucky it hadn’t given me a good kick in the shins before it bolted off! I guess that happens, but ours was a peaceful meeting, and I will forever remember that instant.

I live in Arizona, so the first time I saw a fox on the pathway, I excitedly reported to Mike I had seen a coyote in the yard that day. Laughing, he looked at me like I was nuts and said, “There are no coyotes on Kodiak Island!”. I felt a little foolish but still maintain at a distance, a big healthy Kodiak fox looks very much like a thin Arizona coyote in the summertime!

I’ve seen Bald Eagles before, but in Arizona, they are a special sighting. On Kodiak, they are commonplace, and I was thrilled to see a nesting pair close to camp. On my mid-day break, if the weather was good, I’d sit in a lawn chair facing the bay and watch the eagles fish. It was entertaining; an eagle would fly over the water and scope out a fish, and then in an amazing feet-first dive, catch the fish in its talons. After this, it was usually impossible to get airborne once again, so it had to row itself and the fish, still clutched in its talons, ashore with its wings. There, after expending so much energy, it would devour the fish and do it all over again.

More than once, on a nice day, while taking a siesta in the hammock, enjoying the warm sun on my face, I’d hear and feel the strong wing beats of a very large bird flying close over me, and I’d know I had been checked out by a Bald Eagle!

Some of you may have read my “Encounter” with a bear. I was walking along the path up to the guest cottage one afternoon, my mind far away, when I heard a “horse” snort. The sound brought me back to the present in a flash, and I must say, I have never confused the sound of a bear with that of a horse again!

A secret I’d like to reveal is Mike used to make a bear playground out of old red mooring buoys a distance up behind the generator shed. I heard him and Robin laughing once about how much fun the bears had rolling, tossing and chewing these old red buoys. I never did venture up past the generator shed and burn barrel. Wearing a red jacket, I didn’t want the bears to make a mistake. I did wonder if mother bears warned their cubs, “never go near that playground as there is a dangerous human there who makes frightening loud, smoky blasts come out of the shed and soon after makes fire leap high into the sky out of a barrel!” Thinking back, I was probably quite safe.

Marcie was my favorite yard animal. One warm July day, we spotted a solitary mountain goat strolling along the beach near camp. Mike and Robin reported this was indeed a rare sighting. We couldn’t help ourselves, Robin christened her Marcie, and we began to speculate about her life and why she was here on our beach. She was a rebel. Marcie was tired of billies, she had too many youngsters to raise, and the constant stress of all those steep icy mountain ledges was wearing her down. Maybe she had arthritis in her knees. Maybe she just wanted a vacation at the beach! We happily welcomed her, and for a number of years, she would appear for her annual July vacation at Munsey’s Bear Camp. One year she didn’t arrive. We looked and looked, but no Marcie.   Right away we decided, instead of feeling sad, we would celebrate her life. We had a toast to Marcie, how brave she was to break away from the herd and dare to be different!

Sea Animals

The sea otter is a zen-like sight floating on its back, paws pressed together as if in meditation pose. It’s a sweet maternal picture with mom floating on her back and a tiny baby resting on her belly. And how clever of them to use tools! They often are observed with a rock balanced on their belly, happily cracking open clams for lunch. Brilliant!

At Munsey’s Bear Camp, I often saw sea otters floating in the cove in front of the lodge, and the sea otters kept to themselves. Their cousins the river otters, however, were a different matter. A family of river otters took up residence under the dock. This dock was now their home, and no one else was welcome. The dock became their dining room and their toilet. A mop had to be stationed on the dock so that the horrid stinky mess could be swabbed away. The mop could also be used as a defensive tool.

River Otter

With guests arriving and departing from the dock every five days, caution had to be observed. One day stands out in my mind. It was a beautiful, sunny Kodiak day, and we were all on deck welcoming new guests. As they were embarking from the float plane and luggage was being handed down, I took a step back and slid on an unseen mound of otter poo. I wanted to vaporize as I fell on my backside in an ungraceful plop! Afterward, we laughed about this incident, but I never forgot, and every time I saw a sweet little otter posing for pictures, I saw two little horns poking up through the top of its head.

I grew up near Cape Cod where everyone loved to fish. I didn’t. To me, the whole process from baiting the hook, to dragging the poor thing out of its natural habitat with a hook in its mouth, to butchering it, to stinking up the house with fried fish was cruel and disgusting. Fast forward 40 years and I’m a cook in a fishing camp. I politely listened and smiled at all the fish stories and quietly cooked the fish, wondering what all the commotion was about. One day my perception changed. Robin and Mike asked me if I’d like to go out on the boat with them for the day. We had only one guest, and it was a great day to get out of the house. Yes, I wanted to go! Like a good sport, I purchased my fishing license, and away we went. Mike anchored in a pretty cove, and as I sat down in the deck chair ready to enjoy the sunshine, Robin stuck a baited pole in my hands and showed me where to drop the line. Still not paying much attention, suddenly the pole was nearly yanked out of my hands, and the line was whizzing off the reel. “What’s going on?”, I hollered. Robin and Mike replied, “You’ve caught a fish.” They proceeded to give me instructions. Suddenly, the scenario was hilarious, like an old re-run of “I Love Lucy.” I couldn’t stop laughing which in turn made my arms weak and unable to reel in the line. In a second, Robin strapped a belt-like thing around me to support the fishing pole so that I could reel. Now we are all laughing hard, but with perseverance and aching arms, the fish finally emerged from the deep. I was leaned over the rail gasping in amazement at “my halibut” when all of sudden, Mike, with an expert jerk of his pliers, freed my fish from the hook and off it swam! Hey! At that moment I was totally conflicted. On the one hand, I proudly wanted to bring my halibut home for supper, but on the other, I wished it well and was happy it was able to live another day in Uyak Bay.

 

 

 

 

 

Mountain Goats (Oreamnos americanus)

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It is estimated that 100,000 mountain goats live in North America. They occupy steep mountain ranges from the Cascade and the Rocky Mountains to Southcentral Alaska. Mountain goats occur naturally in the Southeast Panhandle and north and west to Cook Inlet. In Southcentral Alaska, goats can be found in the Chugach and Wrangell Mountains. Mountain goats have been successfully introduced to Baranof Island and Kodiak Island.

From 1952 to 1953, eleven female and seven male goats were transplanted from the Kenai Peninsula to Hidden Basin near the head of Ugak Bay, approximately 30 miles from the town of Kodiak. After a few severe winters, it was uncertain whether any of the transplanted goats had survived, but a 1964 aerial survey counted 26 goats. By 1972, biologists estimated that 100 goats lived on the island. By 2004, the population was estimated at 1560 goats, and by 2013, it had increased to 2500 animals. Goats now occupy every suitable habitat on Kodiak, and biologists are concerned that there are too many goats for the habitat to sustain.

While steep mountain cliffs are barriers to most animals, they are the preferred habitat of goats. Forested valleys, on the other hand, tend to be barriers to goats, because goats live not only where they can find an adequate food supply but also where they can quickly and easily escape predators such as bears. The steep slopes where goats live are easy for them to maneuver but are inaccessible to predators.

Mountain goats are both grazers and browsers. They eat sedges, ferns, mosses, and lichens. They spend their summers in the high alpine meadows where they consume sedges, forbs, and shrubs. During the winter when there is less food available, goats eat whatever they can find, including blueberry, hemlock, and lichens. Recent research on Kodiak indicates that fern rhizomes are an important part of the goats’ diet in early summer before and during vegetative green-up, but as the summer progresses, goats switch from ferns to sedges and forbs. Goats particularly seem to favor feeding sites with abundant long-awned sedge.

Mountain goats live an average of twelve years but may live as long as eighteen years. They inhabit an extreme environment that harbors a number of threats. Some of the main causes of death for goats include malnutrition, bear and wolf predation (although on Kodiak, there are no wolves), avalanches, falling, and human hunters. The ability to survive the winter depends on the goat’s body condition in the fall and the winter food supply. Mortality spikes in October during the first snowfalls and biologists surmise this is probably due to avalanches and the risks of traveling between summer and winter ranges, possibly through bear habitat. There is an even larger spike in mortality in late winter when malnutrition becomes a greater threat. Mortality also tends to be higher after a hot summer, and this may be because the most nutritious forage occurs at the edges of snow patches. If it is cooler and the snow recedes more slowly, the period of early-growth sprouting lasts longer than it does when the temperatures are warmer, and all the snow melts at once. Warm summers also cause heat stress.

The goat population on Kodiak continues to grow, and mountain goats have dramatically expanded their range in recent years. Introduced species like mountain goats can have negative impacts on native plants and animals, and biologists are concerned that a high density of mountain goats could adversely impact alpine areas where the slopes are steep, and there is not much soil. There is very little vegetation in this habitat, and goats could easily over-graze the plants that are there. Not only could over-grazing be irreversibly detrimental to the habitat, but it could and probably would cause a crash in the goat population. Researchers are trying to determine how many goats the alpine habitat on Kodiak can support, or in scientific terms, they want to find the carrying capacity for mountain goats on Kodiak. Biologists are concerned that mountain goats may have already exceeded their carrying capacity on the island, and current ongoing research by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is focused on better understanding exactly what and how much a goat eats over the course of a year.

 

 

 

 

 

Mammals Introduced to Kodiak Island

Man has introduced every mammal species on Kodiak Island other than the six endemic species (Kodiak bear, red fox, river otter, short-tailed weasel, little brown bat, and tundra vole). We humans have a sketchy history of introducing mammals into ecosystems where they did not evolve. Sometimes these introductions are harmless, but often, they are not. Ecosystems are complicated, and it is impossible for us to fully understand how the plants and animals in a particular habitat have worked together to survive over thousands of years. When we introduce mammals not native to that environment, we change the balance.

It is tricky to introduce a mammal into a habitat where it did not evolve. For example, if an island has birds that nest on the ground and man introduces an egg-eating or chick-eating predator to this habitat, the predator will soon wipe out the ground-nesting birds. Of course, most introductions do not cause such an obvious impact, but the harm is often subtle and occurs slowly over time.

New Zealanders have waged an all-out war on introduced mammals in their country. New Zealand has lost 42% of its terrestrial birds since humans settled the country 700 years ago. Many of these birds were flightless and provided easy prey for introduced mammals such as rats, stoats (weasels), and dogs. New Zealanders are trying very hard to save the few species of flightless birds they have left, including kiwis and penguins, but at this point, it is an uphill battle.

While the mammal introductions to Kodiak Island have not had the disastrous consequences of those in New Zealand, introduced mammals have had an impact on the habitat here. Beavers have altered some watersheds on the island. Their dams can divert rivers and block salmon-spawning streams. In areas where beavers are native, their activity may be beneficial to other wildlife, but in an ecosystem where beavers did not originally exist, they can have a negative effect on riparian habitat. If beavers construct a dam on a small salmon stream, they can destroy the salmon-spawning grounds in that stream.DSC_53

Mountain goats on Kodiak are over-grazing their alpine habitat, and these impacts are now being studied. Sitka black-tailed deer have nearly decimated high-bush cranberries, a species that was abundant before deer were introduced to Kodiak. Other introduced mammals have also impacted the endemic flora and fauna of the island, but most mammals were introduced in the first half of the twentieth century, and those species that survived their initial introduction, are now thriving and are considered part of the complex ecosystem of the Kodiak Island Archipelago.

Over the next few weeks, I will write about several of the introduced wild mammal species on Kodiak Island. These include Sitka black-tailed deer, mountain goats, Roosevelt elk on Afognak Island, reindeer, beavers, and snowshoe hare. I will discuss how the species are doing and how their introductions have impacted the island.

I would love to hear your comments and opinions about mammal introductions. Are they good, bad, or a little of both?

 

 

Reproduction for Deer, Foxes, and Goats

 

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Spring is an active time for Sitka black-tailed deer, red fox, and mountain goats on Kodiak, especially once the weather warms, the snow on the mountains begins to melt, and the vegetation starts to grow again.  All three species give birth in the spring, and while we rarely see nannies with their kids, we will soon start seeing does and fawns, and in a couple of months we’ll see young fox kits as they begin to play outside their dens.

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Sitka black-tailed deer bucks begin growing a new set of antlers in the spring, and I’ve seen several with little nubs beginning to grow.  During the spring and summer, the antlers receive a rich supply of blood and are covered by a fine membrane called “velvet”.  At this time, the antlers are very fragile and are vulnerable to cuts and bruises.  By August, antler growth slows, and they begin to harden, and a few weeks later, antler growth stops, blood flow to the antlers ceases, and the velvet dries up and falls off.

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Mating season on Kodiak for Sitka black-tailed deer occurs from mid-October to late November.  The gestation period is six to seven months, so fawns are born from late May through June.  Does begin breeding when they are two and continue to produce fawns until they are ten to twelve years old.  Does between the ages of five and ten are in their prime and usually produce two fawns a year.

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Newborn fawns weigh between 6.0 and 8.8 lbs. (2.7 to 4.0 kg), and for the first two weeks, a fawn produces no scent, allowing the doe to leave the fawn hidden and safe from predators, while she browses for food to rebuild her energy reserves after giving birth.

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Red foxes breed in February and March on Kodiak.  Right after mating, the female makes one or more dens, and the extra dens are used if the original is disturbed.  The den is a hole in the ground that measures approximately 15 by 20 ft. (4.57m x6.1m) and may have several entrances.  Inside the den, the female constructs a grass-lined nest where the babies are born.  The litter is born after a gestation period of 51 to 54 days, and an average litter consists of four kits; although, litters as large as ten are not uncommon.  Kits weigh 4 ounces (113 grams) at birth.  They have fur but are blind, deaf, and toothless.  A kit cannot regulate its body temperature when it is born, and the mother must remain with it all times for the first two to three weeks.  During this time, the father or adult females bring food to the mother.  If the mother dies before the kits are old enough to care for themselves, the father will take over as the primary provider.  The kits’ eyes open eight to ten days after birth, and they leave the den for the first time about a month later.  Kits begin hunting on their own when they are three months old.

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Breeding season for mountain goats occurs between late October and early December on Kodiak.  Mountain goats seem to avoid mating with relatives, and billies may travel long distances to find suitable mates.  Males breed with several females, but nannies breed with only one male.  Nannies do not give birth until they are at least four years old, and billies between the ages of five and ten do most of the breeding.  Nannies give birth in late May after a gestation period of 180 days, and they normally have only one kid, but sometimes produce twins.  Twinning is more common when goat populations spread into a new habitat with an abundant food supply, and as the goat population on Kodiak has increased and expanded its range, biologists have noticed more twinning than is normal.  Nannies seek out an isolated area to give birth but then form nursery groups with other nannies and kids.  The kid remains with its mother at least until the next breeding season and may stay with her for several years.

It is always a thrill to see the young of any species of wildlife.  Babies are shy but curious as they learn about their surroundings, and often they are unaware of potential dangers.  It is important to remember not to approach any wildlife, but especially mothers and their young, too closely.  If the mother runs one way and the baby the other, they may never reunite, and the baby is not yet equipped with the knowledge and skills to survive on his own.

Check out these pages for more information on Sitka black-tailed deer, Red foxes, and mountain goats.