Because they both have horns, from a distance it’s hard to distinguish if this is a male or female. Shot on location at Big Sky.

By Tom Reed | Photograph by Boz Boswell

Next time you’re riding the Lone Peak Tram to the summit, look over to the Little Couloir and the far A to Z Chutes, you might spot a mountain goat; imagine spending the entire winter up there. The mountain goat—does just that. Although wolves, bears, mountain lions and the occasional eagle are natural predators of mountain goats, far more are lost in falls or avalanches. But somehow they thrive in this harsh environment of subzero temperatures, deep snow, thrashing winds, summer lightning storms, rockfall, and thin forage. 

Mountain goats are miracles of evolution. Specialized cloven hooves conform to rock nubs.  The animal’s splayed toes act like the points of rock climbing shoes. To stave off starvation they eat pretty much anything from lichen—a complex plant that is both algae and fungi—to pine needles, herb-like forbs, and grasses. Lichen are particularly important because they provide complex carbohydrates and proteins throughout the long Montana winter. 

A unique double coat with dense fur close to the skin covered by a thick outer “shell” that is as much as seven inches deep—thicker than an expedition weight down coat—keeps them alive in conditions that would kill most large mammals. Then there are their horns, which they use for defense and for fighting during mating season. “The horns are deadly daggers,” says Dr. Robert Garrott, a professor of ecology at Montana State University. “Because of this, the males don’t fight head-to-head like bighorn sheep. Instead, they stand head to tail and jab each other in the flanks. Mountain goats have what is called a dermal shield on their rumps which protects them from the slashes.”

Although they may look alike, mountain goats aren’t goats at all. They’re more closely related to African antelope. The species is entirely unique to North America, and Montana has one of the largest populations of mountain goats in the Lower 48, with an estimated 6,000 animals. In the Madison Range—the mountains around Big Sky—mountain goats are most numerous to the north in the Lee Metcalf Wilderness. But they were not always here.

Before World War II, mountain goats were only found in the ice-clad mountains of western Montana, and north into Glacier National Park. Later, biologists transplanted them to suitable habitat in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Today, some of the healthiest populations are found here. Sadly, some native populations are declining. Human caused climate change poses the greatest threat. But intrusion into mountain goat habitat by means of today’s powerful snowmobiles is also putting the animals at risk, which is why it’s important for all high country adventurers, including backcountry skiers, to give them plenty of room. In Big Sky, mountain goats live close by, but we should treat them like distant neighbors.