WEST GLACIER — As mountain goat research prepares to continue this summer in Glacier National Park, preliminary data suggests goats that are habituated to humans display different herding behavior, and use habitat differently, than wild goats.
The three-year research study began late last summer. Glacier officials call it a critical component of the ongoing Going-to-the-Sun Road corridor management planning effort.
Already, early data shows wild goats stay near cliffs and ledges with some use of meadow habitats, while those habituated to humans often hang out in meadows, trees and near the road.
Human interaction with mountain goats has been on the rise near Logan Pass, at the summit of Going-to-the-Sun.
It’s a concern. In 2010, a hiker in Washington’s Olympic National Park was gored in the leg and killed by an aggressive mountain goat.
University of Montana researchers, in partnership with the park and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, are conducting the study.
Six mountain goats — five females and one male — were captured and fitted with radio collars last summer, the first of 20 to 25 that will be collared for the study.
Both GPS and VHF radio collars are utilized. Glacier spokeswoman Denise Germann says the VHF collars only collect a data point when they are located by an observer on the ground or in an aircraft. GPS collars collect a data point every few hours, and the information is transmitted via satellite to a researcher’s computer.
Radio collar data from the first goats revealed they used Mount Cannon and the Hidden Creek drainage area as winter habitat.
Germann noted the data is preliminary and results may change as more information is gathered.
The study hopes to determine whether the same or different goats use Logan Pass and the Highline Trail each year, the timing of their movements into and beyond the area, and assess their relationship with humans, particularly patterns of habituation — and whether there is any goat-directed aggression toward humans.
“Additional components of the study will assess the extent to which goat reliance on humans results in ‘unnatural’ behavior,” Germann says. That includes whether the goats are using humans, trails and roads as havens from predators, and the effectiveness of possible deterrents to habituated goats.
Some goats may be temporarily marked with paint as part of the study. So, too, may bighorn sheep, which are being studied simultaneously, although no sheep are being collared. Bighorns are easier for researchers to identify because of variations in their horns.
A similar study of Glacier mountain goats a few years ago was quickly halted after two goats died while being tranquilized prior to being collared. Park officials said numerous changes and restrictions were implemented prior to the new study being launched last summer.
Glacier is home to approximately 1,500 mountain goats, and officials want science-based information before decisions are made on the corridor management plan.
National Park Service and federal highway funds are being used to pay for the three-year, $150,000 mountain goat study.
The corridor management plan is developing a range of alternatives to address management of visitor use and experience, congestion, protection of natural and cultural resources and the long-term financial sustainability of the park’s shuttle system as they relate to Going-to-the-Sun Road.