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Hard times for
Dunham Creek Goats

October 7, 1999
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson,
Wildlife Biologist
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks
"Game Range Ramblings" column Seeley Swan Pathfinder


Jamie Jonkel didn't find as many mountain goats as we'd hoped when he surveyed the Dunham Creek area last week.

Maybe he was just looking in the wrong spots.

For instance, Jamie failed to survey the Rich Ranch, and the flats around Kozy Korner, where a lone billy crossed last spring, much to the amazement of all who observed it. The goat appeared to be leaving the Game Range and heading for the mountains, only a few days before the 50th Anniversary Celebration got underway.

"Better get a move-on before the pilgrims show up," old Billy might have been heard to mutter, if anyone could have crawled close enough to hear.

Well, being a learned and experienced man of the outdoors, Jamie can be forgiven for flying high over Kozy on the way to more typical and productive goat habitat along Dunham Creek. And, even though he certainly didn't see every goat in the country from the backseat of Bill Stewart's Citabria (especially against a snowy backdrop on top of Monture Mountain), his count of 21 is probably reasonable, inasmuch as it suggests a decline from the record high count of 56 obtained in September 1995.

If there has been a decline in goat numbers, it would come as no surprise when you consider what goats have been through in the past few years.

How about the winter of 1996-97, for starters? While we were whining about multiple layers of crust in 3-4 feet of snow on the Game Range from November through much of April, the Dunham Creek goats lived 3,000 feet higher. And with only a one-year reprieve, goats weathered an above-average snowpack in the winter of 1998-99.

By comparing counts of kids with winter snowpack data, it appears that fewer kids are produced in years of deep and persistent snow. Following this spring's extended snowpack, Jamie only found 5 kids with 16 adults in Dunham Creek. If weather conditions can produce enough stress on a gravid female to influence the growth and survival of a fetus, then you would expect kids and yearlings would also suffer increased mortality in severe winters.

So, I would guess that the past three years are not remembered fondly by Dunham Creek goats, and Jamie's recent survey doesn't contradict my bias. It doesn't necessarily support it either, but I can live with that.

Although these may be hard times for goats along the southern fringe of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, there is cause for optimism. We've witnessed a strong recovery of goats in Dunham Creek since the hunting season was closed there in 1984. In July 1985, only 5 goats were observed in a helicopter census, but the population steadily increased over the next 10 years. No doubt the mild winters of the early 1990s were important in this recovery. We can expect another surge in goat numbers when weather conditions next allow it.

Today, the Dunham Creek population plays an important role in FWP's strategy for mountain goat management in the southern Swan Range. During population highs, Dunham Creek is a factory for goat production that may fill vacant surrounding habitats. Dunham Creek goats, particularly the more mobile and solitary billies, are available for limited hunting when they cross into District 133 in the Bob Marshall. During population lows, Dunham Creek is a reserve for a surviving core of adults to wait it out until the good times return.

It's also fairly accessible country for an afternoon hike to view goats. A two-mile hike up the Dunham Creek trail will often yield a goat sighting or two, but it's also a great place to bump into a grizzly bear. I don't mean to sound paranoid, but I don't think I've ever been very far up the Dunham Creek trail without crossing grizzly tracks. And, Jamie spotted one from the plane last week. So, don't venture out unless you're prepared to stay alert and take the proper precautions.

In my experience, there seems to be an association between grizzlies and mountain goats. During a helicopter survey in my early days as a goat researcher, I once spotted two grizzlies feeding on the sheer north face of Rocky Mountain, with a small group of goats bedded only about 100 yards away. It was a demonstration of what it takes to level the playing field for grizzlies and goats.

Just tip it sideways.

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