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It's Not the Goats, It's the Goat Feeders

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photo by Noelle Phillips (2010) for Friends of Scotchman Peaks photo by Noelle Phillips (2010) for Friends of Scotchman Peaks

The Scotchman goats are just a symptom of the real problem

When the Forest Service, with the blessing of Idaho Department of Fish and Game — and Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness — closed Scotchman Peak Trail #65 in early September, it got a lot of press attention. In many ways, this is good. Attention needs to be paid to the “mountain goat problem.” But the focus of the attention is misleading. 

Story ledes and headlines have consistently used the term “aggressive goats.” A good — or bad, rather — example is “Aggressive goats force trail closure.” The headline might better read, “Humans who feed goats force trail closure.” It is much closer to the truth. The goats are not so much being aggressive as they are being insistent. And it’s people who have taught them to be that way.

So, it’s really not a mountain goat problem as much as it is a human problem. In the overall scheme of things, the news stories are pretty well balanced. Most of them point out that the problem is caused by mountain visitors who give goats handouts, many for photo opportunities or the questionable thrill of viewing them “up close and personal.” This has made goats willing to get personal, to the point of licking human appendages for the salt contained in sweat. 

To say this is somewhat dangerous is an understatement. Mountain goats, even those living on a mountain as well-visited as Scotchman Peak, are unpredictable wild animals. They have a logic dictated by their needs to survive in a place where rarity is an everyday fact of life. That means goats — especially habituated goats — sometimes don’t play well with humans. 

An incident in late July proved this true — again. A man who allowed a Scotchman goat to lick his legs for the salt decided he was done with that experience and backed away. The goat wasn’t done, and proved it by biting the man’s shin, a wound that required stitches. This is not a common occurrence, but it did occur, and will likely occur again if people don’t learn to stay away from the goats. 

In 2010, a man died in Olympic National Park after a goat that wanted the man’s lunch began tossing its horns around and punctured the man’s femoral artery. The man bled to death. The goat was nearly immediately put down. The ironic and sad part of this story is that the goat was acting insistent because the man was unwilling to give the goat something to eat. The man was doing the right thing. The actions of people who hadn’t done the right thing caused his death. 

When humans aren’t providing trans fats and sodium for them, goats subsist on lichens and forbs found growing in their neighborhood. They travel great distances for water and get their sodium from “licks” and the plants they eat. Without humans to provide the salt that every creature needs to survive, they find it in natural sources that may be few and far between, but find it they do. And have for hundreds of thousands of years. 

In other words, mountain goats don’t need humans to survive. Humans are not doing them a favor by feeding them, but a disservice. 

The July biting incident is actually the cause of the September closure. Trail #65 was slated to be closed August 17, but fires that started August 13 usurped the goat closure, and it wasn’t until the fire closure was lifted that the goat closure was put in place. 

There is a sign — a very visible sign — where the Scotchman Peak trail comes into the rock field that the last half mile of trail traverses to the top. The sign says, “Please do not approach, feed or harass the goats.” There are other signs at the base of the trail that say similar things. The literacy rate of Scotchman Peak visitors is likely at least as high as the national average, which is 99 percent. So, one person in 100 might have the excuse that they couldn’t read the sign. It appears the failure rate is higher than that. 

It doesn’t have to be a lot higher, though. Behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner noted that the best way to train anything to do anything is by random reinforcement. If one person in 20 — five percent — feeds mountain goats, the goats will likely become expectant of being fed by humans. And act accordingly.

Can goats be “untrained?” That’s unknown. But the closure is at least giving them some breathing room and a reprieve from human presence. IDFG will conduct some research, hopefully, that will tell us if the closure helped. The real question, though, is if humans can be trained not to feed the goats. That addresses the core problem, and should be our major objective in the human-goat conflict.

Sandy Compton’s newest book, The Scenic Route: Life on the Road between Hope and Paradise, is available for purchase at BlueCreekPress.com or from your local bookseller.

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

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Homepage, Headlines, mountain goats, wildlife, wilderness, Scotchman Peaks, Sandy Compton, Scenic Route

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