by Andy Dappen
“Move really slowly, you guys. I don’t want you to scare the goat.” Jake had seen the approaching mountain goat first and he was excited about the photo op to come.
“I don’t think we need to worry about scaring him ,” I said, “There’s so much summer traffic here, they’re used to people.”
I didn’t say, but was thinking, “I hope he’s not a pest.”
In other popular haunts around the Cascades and Olympics, goats sometimes stare at you, looking for that moment when you drop your fly. When they see you urinating, they move in fast trying to capture your salt as it flows from your faucet.
In this case, the goat watched us from fifty feet for a minute. Our cameras were clicking and we could see it was not afraid. We moved around trying to capture our model with ever-better backgrounds. Still no fear.
Suddenly its mood changed and it walked toward us. At first it seemed more curious than aggressive. When it started butting its head against a small tree and hooking its horns at us, however, there was fear… on our part. Its black horns looked needle sharp at the points. I put the camera away, slowly backed up, and picked up a snow shovel that I could slam into its face if necessary. Jake and his father picked up ski poles to use as lances, and we stood side-by-side giving the goat a large wall of weaponry to contemplate.
It didn’t like those odds and retreated for a time. Then it seemed to decide it didn’t like being submissive, so back at us it came. Again it approached, repeating its tree butts and horn swipes. On our next assault we clanked poles, yelled, and aggressively attacked with snowballs flying. This time the goat got the message and left for good.
Goat-human interactions are escalating in various places around North Central Washington but some of those interactions are even worse in Olympic National Park. At Hurricane Ridge and Mt. Ellinor, people have been gored by aggressive goats. There was even a death caused by a goring in 2010.
In this incident a large billy gored a day hiker on Klahane Ridge (Hurricane Ridge area). The goat had followed a party of three for about a mile and eventually gored the single member of the party who had sent the other two hikers ahead for greater safety. In truth experts believe parties are safer against assertive or aggressive goats if all members of a party stick close together – greater numbers of people and the perception of making yourself look bigger seem to deter charges. In the case of this fatal incident, the goat eventually charged the lone hiker, gored him in the thigh above the knee, and struck a major artery. The victim bled to death.
Such incidents are rare and the goat involved in this incident was hunted and killed. Nonetheless, goats are becoming increasingly habituated to people in places like the Enchantments, Stuart Range, Ingalls Lake, Spider Gap, Rainy Pass, Maple Pass, the Liberty Bell area, and more. We all need to take steps to prevent goats from becoming habituated to humans. We also need to discourage goats that have become habituated. Here are some recommendations:
- Don’t feed wildlife. This applies to squirrels, chipmunks, bears, AND goats. Getting any wild animal used to handouts and associating people with food only brings about bad outcomes.
- Goats often use and start associating people with salt. They lick people’s packs, pole straps, and places where people have urinated for salt. Don’t leave your sweat-filled pack unattended if there are goats around, and always move at least 50 yards from trails and tent sites to urinate when in goat country. You don’t want trails or campgrounds to become highways for salt-thirsty goats.
- Don’t urinate on soils or within campsite areas. This encourages goats to become habituated to human contact and may lead to abnormal and aggressive behaviors. Use toilets when available, otherwise urinate on bare rocks to keep plant life from being destroyed by goats, or in places inaccessible to goats that are at least 100 feet from campsites.
- Discourage wild animals from becoming too tame. Enjoy them from a distance that is safe for both you and them. If they come too close start driving them away or get away yourself.
- In summer: If a goat approaches, initially give it more space, if it continues to approach, stand your ground and talk to it. If it keeps approaching talk loudly and start yelling if it keeps coming. Make yourself bigger at this point by putting out your arms and or flapping out your coat. If necessary, start throwing small stones at it. Stay together in a group if a goat is overly curious or aggressive. People standing together and working as a group to drive away a goat will be perceived as a bigger, greater, threat to the animal.
- In autumn: Goats go into mating season from about October to December. Give goats, especially males, more space and work harder to get out of their way. Males are more likely to perceive people as a competitor for a female and are more likely to charge.
- If you spot a female with kids, give them even more space than you would a male. Females are more likely to become aggressive in order to protect their young.
Humans should also understand that all of the following constitute aggressive goat behavior:
- Stare Threat – Goats will stare at opponents, note them as an enemy, and wait for the enemy to show signs of aggression.
- Horn Threat – Goats will lower their heads, pull-in their chins, and show their horns to an opponent.
- Rush Threat – Goats will walk, trot, or run (essentially charging) toward an opponent. Goats feeling especially threatened will eventually end their charge with a horn threat or a horn swipe.
- Horn Swipe – Goats lower their heads and sweep their horns upward in a half-circle motion. This is typically aimed at an opponent to strike and gore.
- Present Threat – Goats raise high on their legs while arching their backs and pulling their heads down and away, as if ready to strike upward with their horns. Such goats may then move slowly toward you to show off their size and height and to say, “I am bigger than you!”
- Pitting – This occurs during the rut (mating season) and males may sit on the ground, similar to a sitting dog, with an arched neck and head looking towards the ground. Such goats will then paw quickly and vigorously with one front leg, attempting to throw snow or dirt on their bellies, hind legs and flanks creating a rutting pit. If this has occurred recently, males will have a “dirty trousers” appearance with dark patches on their flanks, rumps, and bellies. Be especially cautious around males with those markings.
- Brush Rubbing – Males will stand and rub the base of their horns on twigs or bunches of grass by brushing their horns and the frontal area of their skull from side to side.
Photo below by Sarah Shaffer. Mountain goat directly above Aasgard Pass in the Enchantments.
Finally, if goats start exhibiting overly curious or aggressive behavior,
- Stay Together – Goats can easily mistake a lot of people close together or with their coats held open as a much larger animal that they do not want to face. Don’t separate — goats are much more likely to attack a single person than a group.
- Using Aversive Conditioning or Hazing Techniques – Scare or frighten goats exhibiting unwanted behavior through noise stimuli (screaming, sirens, noise horns, cracker shells) or contact stimuli (snowballs, rocks, beanbags, slingshots or by waving clothing around)
- Remove what they are after – If a goat persistently comes back to the same area several times, they are probably attracted by something like salt. Get rid of the attractant or leave yourself.
Report troublesome goats – A partnership between the WDFW and USFS to better understand human-goat interactions has developed a web application. Backcountry recreationalists can document encounters with goats HERE. Fill out as much information as you can remember — WDFW is trying to track where these goats are and when they are most likely to become aggressive.