GREAT FALLS, Mont. — If a man pees in the forest and a mountain goat is around to lick the salt deposit, will the goat ever leave?
As it turns out, no.
After four years of study, Glacier National Park rangers have definitively figured out why mountain goats like to hang out at Logan Pass. New research shows the white-haired ungulates happen to be keen on humans, the defensive barrier they create against predators and the salty treats they tend to leave behind.
“There was a concern with the goats and sheep at Logan Pass,” Mark Biel, GNP natural resources program manager, said. “We wanted to see what was driving them to hang out with people…we noticed they were acting a lot different and exhibiting different behaviors from the ‘backcountry’ goats.”
A backcountry goat, or in other words, a normally behaving goat, typically spends its time vigilantly observing its surroundings. They spend a large amount of time near escape terrain, like steep cliff faces, so they have a place they can easily get to when a bear comes by ready to pick off the young and the weak. They also stay together in larger groups.
The Logan Pass goats take a much more lax approach to survival. They’ve outsourced their defenses to the humans.
In 2013, Biel teamed up with University of Montana professor of wildlife conservation Joel Berger and master’s degree candidate Wesley Sarmento to study the Logan Pass goats’ behavior.
The first step was collaring the goats with GPS trackers to monitor their movements and patterns. Sarmento also spent time in the area collecting observational data.
Biel said the cumulative data indicated that the Logan Pass herds weren’t normal.
“They’re hanging their hats on available salt; urine, antifreeze, sweaty pack straps,” Biel said.
They don’t consume enough of the antifreeze left behind by visitors’ cars to kill them, Biel continued.
“However, we did take some blood samples and we found low-level metabolites, but it doesn’t appear to affect them like it would a dog or cat. It’s still not good, but they haven’t gotten enough to die.”
The GPS collaring also indicated that half of the goats in the Logan Pass area were no longer migrating to natural salt deposits as they traditionally have in the past. Some still make the journey, but the rest find all the salt they need around the high-visitation area.
Goat X, named affectionately for his GPS collar number, was also found to have peculiar migration patterns. Goat X is known by rangers and visitors as the big billy who likes to hang out on the roof of the Logan Pass Visitor Center.
“He follows the Highline Trail to Granite Park Chalet and Sperry Chalet to get anthropogenic (human deposited) salt,” Biel said. “The trail has no predators, it’s high-use and there’s tons of available salt. With increased visitation, we’re having more issues with human waste on the trail and the goats and sheep take advantage of that.”
Biel and the researchers were able to collect good data from the collars, but there was still no conclusive answer about whether it is the salt or the predator protection keeping the goats near humans.
Then, the 2015 Reynolds Creek Wildland Fire erupted in east Glacier and closed down Logan Pass to visitors. This gave the researchers the opening they needed to view the goats’ behavior without humans and determine if salt or predator protection was keeping them there.
“There were no humans and enough salt that they would stay if that was it,” Biel said. “But the GPS data and remote cameras showed that when the people were gone, the predators came in and the goats headed to the mountains. So, we concluded that they’re here for predator avoidance — salt is a secondary bonus.”
This finding was further proven when Sarmento tested both the Logan Pass goats and the backcountry goats’ reactions when he presented himself with a deer model, as a human and with a bear model.
When the deer was presented, neither party had a reaction. With human presence, the Logan Pass goats kept an eye on him and the backcountry goats ran about 100 meters away. When Wesley presented the bear model, the backcountry goats ran 200 meters and the Logan Pass goats ran about 75 meters.
“It showed that they don’t want to be around something that could eat them,” Biel said.
Biel took these findings and developed a plan of action. If goats don’t want things with sharp teeth hanging around, he needed to enlist the help of a cooperative animal that could strike fear in habituated goats.
Enter Gracie: Glacier’s resident bark ranger.
“We hoped a wolf-like thing for the habituated goats would keep them where they need to be,” Biel said. “It’s working fairly well so far.”
The three-year-old border collie is in her second season of goat patrol at Logan Pass. Her mission is to keep the goats wild by ensuring they stay away from people and parking lots. She also serves as an interpretive tool to teach people about respecting the land and wildlife in the area.
“Using a dog is one of the most successful ways to manage wildlife,” Allyson Cowan, Gracie’s trainer from the Wind River Institute, said. “We’re teaching the animals that there is a way to feel safe without hazing or harassment. We’ll herd them to their natural habitat and then give Gracie her ‘down’ signal, telling the sheep they’re safe now.”
She also serves as an interpretive tool to teach people about respecting the land and wildlife in the area.
In July, visitation to Glacier broke the one million mark. The park is on course for a record-setting year. With that comes a host of issues.
“Anecdotally, last year at Logan Pass there was a little bit of trash to pick up,” Biel said. “This year, the first thing our volunteers do is walk around and fill one to two shopping bags with garbage, like food, socks, diapers, insoles. The wildlife are targeting this area because they know it’s there now. What’s funny is often times the garbage is less than 5-feet from a bear-proof garbage can.”
The park is working to find solutions to these issues. Programs like Gracie’s interpretive role at Logan Pass help make a difference, but officials urge people to take it upon themselves to learn about human and wildlife safety in the park before they visit.
“Rangers have been stretched pretty thin responding to the increased number of calls this summer,” GNP Superintendent Jeff Mow said in a statement. “We deeply appreciate everyone who takes the time to really read up on trail conditions, wildlife safety, and what to bring with you on your trip. Every person who comes to the park well-prepared really helps us out as we strive to meet this increased demand.”
The goat study wrapped in 2016 and Biel has been busy working to use the knowledge he gained to mitigate human/wildlife issues in the park since.
“It drove home the idea of predator avoidance,” Biel said. “It was interesting to figure that out, learn more about goats and tease out how humans affect wildlife behavior.”
Gracie is training the goats, now it’s up to Biel to train the people.
Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com