The Rocky Mountain Goat – True “King of the Mountain”
Ah, finally, back to my favorite part – the critter photography!
Today, we will launch into some of Mt. Evans’ wonderful wildlife, beginning with one of my favorite species, the Mountain Goat. In all truth, Mountain Goats are not native to Colorado. In the “Lower 48”, the Mountain Goats’ historic range only extended down as far as Idaho and western Montana (though they have been introduced to several western states – WA, SD, and other parts of MT). The Mountain Goats were brought to Colorado in 1948 by the then Colorado Game, Fish and Parks Department with the intent to create a population for hunting. Though they cause some concern for possible disease issues with the native Bighorn Sheep, they have been allowed to remain in the Mt. Evans area and seem to share the range just fine with the mountain’s Bighorn Sheep. Occasionally a Mountain Goat will make its way as far north as Rocky Mountain National Park, where, being a non-native, they are promptly removed from the National Park.
I have seen Mountain Goats in South Dakota (introduced), near Mt. Rushmore, and in their native territory of Alaska, but Mt. Evans is a LOT more convenient for viewing!
Finding Mt. Evans’ Mountain Goats
Mountain Goats are not true goats, but they are close relatives, and are actually related to antelope. And one does not have to hike miles into the back country for a glimpse of these wonderful creatures on Mt. Evans. Often they are quite close to the road, attracted there by minerals in the soil that they need. If one is patient, quiet and respectful, does not come too close, and using the proper photography equipment (I use a 300mm Canon lens for distance and close ups, with an 80-200mm Canon lens for landscapes) one can safely get some amazing photographs of these mountain monarchs. While these Mountain Goats see a lot of people in their environment, always remember two things – 1) A car makes a great, safe, and comfortable blind to photograph from. Often animals will totally ignore you and behave normally if you stay in your car. And 2) A mountain goat has very sharp horns, and great traction. You don’t want them, or their kids, to feel threatened. To put it another way, how fast can you scramble over and round boulders? Mountain Goats are evolved to escape predators such as mountain lions in just this kind of terrain. You? Not so much!! If you are away from your car, remember to gauge a good safety distance for your subjects. Always remember this rule of thumb, applicable wherever you are doing wildlife photography- If the animal stops its normal behavior and looks concerned, or startles and moves away, you are too close! Every disturbance that causes them to stop doing what they need to be doing to survive – ie, sleep, eating, tending their young, etc. – it’s wasted energy that they will have to try to replace. You may not think your individual actions are hurting anything, but if this happens 30+ times over the course of one day, it makes a difference to your photo subject. Don’t make their lives any harder. Particularly in this harsh place, calories count, and can mean the difference between surviving the winter and death – for them and their young.
What we see as play are actually life lessons. These kids, even at this tender age, are working out a pecking order and figuring out who will be making the herd rules. It is the same with all animals, including the human ones. Other lessons include coordination, where to find good food, learning about dangers, etc. Hopefully most of this is learned well in a fairly safe environment, with their mommas close by, before they have to worry about escaping predators.
Dressing for Conditions
The window of opportunity at Mt. Evans is short, with the road finally opening sometime between Memorial Day and mid-June, when the snow and ice finally clear the road. Let’s face it, this is NOT a road you would want to be on when conditions are bad.
I’m sure being 95°-100° “down below” in Denver, my son thought I was being ridiculous when I told him to bring a winter coat, a hat, and gloves, but the reality is that the 14-ers make their own weather, and it is possible to see snow any day of the year, and the winds, even on a nice day, can be biting cold. (Example, our morning temperature at the base campground was around 60° at 7:30am, but by the time we reached the summit, it was 46° with a cold wind, with the cold camera metal and penetrating wind rendering the need for that winter gear! And it can be beautiful and sunny down below, and by the time you reach the summit, it can be socked in with clouds and the wind trying to knock you over. You just never know what you are going to find up there! There’s a reason Nature provided Mountain Goats with those coats!
I know from years of experience that my son tends to be one of those “Aw, I don’t need a jacket” kind of guys, but he did bring his coat, and by the time we were 3/4 of the way up the mountain, he had it on! I’m hoping this firsthand knowledge will stick with him for his other hiking adventures. As I have tried and tried to instill, Nature absolutely does not care if you live or die. In the mountains, a mistake can mean your life. One must be prepared in all seasons in the mountains – or anywhere else, for that matter!)
Winter comes early on the “14-ers”, and the road past Summit Lake (as well as the small Echo Lake Campground at the foot of the mountain) closes after Labor Day. The road will stay open as far as Summit Lake (not even close to the summit, where most of the critters are to be found), until snow finally shuts it down until late Spring comes once again. This closure leaves the wildlife in peace during the fall rut and throughout their long, hard winter.
Nature dictates wildlife distribution on Mt. Evans, both with Mountain Goats and Bighorn Sheep. Males in both of these species tend to be solitary creatures, only coming together to fight for dominance and breeding rights, and the actual rut (or breeding season). What is usually seen on the Mt. Evans summit during summer are the females (Bighorn Sheep ewes, Mountain Goat nannies) and their young, which consist of some of the yearlings from the previous year, still staying near their mothers, and the kids and lambs of the current year.
A New Way of Looking at Things
Traveling this late in the season to Mt. Evans, I had anticipated that the Mountain Goats would have finished their shedding process, and was quite surprised to see that they had, on the whole, not made much progress from my late June/early July visits.
I have often thought the mothers of elk, deer, bighorns, and mountain goats look pretty dreadful through much of the summer as they shed out their previous winter’s coats, which is disappointing when doing photography (mostly on the basis of who wants a picture or painting of a moth-eaten looking critter? We all love those visuals of “the perfect specimen”.)
But in going through my bighorn ewe photos from this year’s foray, I was suddenly struck by a totally different way of looking at these mothers. Suddenly I saw the camouflage of their broken coat patterns, mirroring the rocks and ridges around them, and I realized it created excellent invisibility.
Bighorns and Mountain Goats inhabit the high peaks of the Rocky Mountains for one very obvious reason- it is physically very hard for predators to reach them in this rocky and precarious fortress of boulders ranging in size from mere rocks to boulders as big as a car, and narrow rock ledges with drops of hundreds of feet. But in my photos, with the bighorn ewe standing surrounded by boulders and against a distant ridge, I suddenly saw the actual camouflage this shedding coat provides. It was so clear, I really had to marvel at the fact that I had been so oblivious for so long! I had previously only seen this as an “ugly” fact of summer! Just a fact of life, that animals shed in the spring. This shedding-camouflage strategy is not quite as obvious with the Mountain Goats living in Colorado, as they are not native to this habitat.
You can see in the following 2 Glacier Bay, Alaska photos, where they are native, that the rock makeup provides some better camouflage. (Throughout human history, Native Alaskan women and children have traveled to traditional summer grounds to hand-gather the clumps of Mountain Goat shed wool to be used in clothing and blankets, helping their families survive the same brutal winters for which Nature so well designed the Mountain Goat.)
Still, even in Colorado, this protective and life-saving winter wool folds back, drapes down in clumps, and the shadows created all help break up how the eye sees their mass.
Preparing for Winter
I recently learned that male Mountain Goats shed out their coats earlier than the females, which lead to another thought, that with the threat of possible snow conditions at any time in the high Rockies, perhaps the mothers keep their heavy coats longer to provide a measure of warmth for their babies to snuggle against if the weather suddenly reverses. Winter comes early to the high peaks, and even in early August, I could already see the Mountain Goat kids starting to put on a winter coat, preparing them for the long winter months to ahead. Just one more cute kid shot!
Have a great week everyone, and don’t forget to share this with your favorite nature enthusiast friends and family!
All My Best~