Animals and plants have colonized every possible environment of the West, even the most inhospitable alpine reaches. That's where the most complete and supreme mountaineer on the continent — the magnificent mountain goat — thrives.
This white-bearded ruminant — meaning it has a four-chambered stomach — spends its lifespan of about 10 years among the jagged and snowy peaks. Its body is so perfectly designed for the harsh winter alpine environs of icy mountain ledges, gale force winds and minus 40 degrees Celsius, that it rarely alters its daily routine.
Males (billies) and females (nannies) both have 12-inch horns, but billies weigh slightly more (287 pounds) than nannies (220 pounds). Both mark their territory by rubbing their horns — which have glands at the base —on vegetation. Deep chests and tremendously developed shoulders enable strength for climbing and the ability to paw through heavy and crusted snow in search of food.
A two-layered, long, white coat, with coarse 8-inch hollow outer hairs, creates an excellent dead air insulation space. Beneath is an 8-centimeter densely interwoven wool as fine as cashmere. This wool creates a foam-like quilt of trapped air that even the frigid mountain air cannot penetrate. In fact, mountain goats spend much of the summer trying to keep cool, and that's after they shed their winter coats!
The white coats are perfect camouflage for the high country as can be attested by those who have spent hours (including me) looking through binoculars in search of a mere glimpse of this awesome beast.
Their wide-spreading, two-toed hooves are perhaps the most ingenious rock-gripping devices ever designed. The hoof is hard; each of the two wrap-around toenails is used to catch and hold a crack or tiny knob of rock. The front edge of the hoof is tapered — useful for digging into dirt or packed snow when the goat is going up hill. In addition, mountain goats have special traction pads, which protrude slightly past the nail and essentially create skid-proof pads. Four hooves. Two toes per hoof. Eight different specially adapted soles.
Their ability to climb on rock faces is legendary. In an emergency, I have observed mountain goats cart-wheeling from one ledge to another. They must have steady, strong feet; if they fall, they die. And obviously, there's no fear of height.
These are thrifty beasts with four-chambered stomachs that allow them to digest cellulose fiber from wood and derive energy-rich fatty acids, carbohydrates and B-vitamins. Grass-like plants called sedges are an important part of their diet, and they stay green even under snow.
Goats travel in small bands of nannies, kids and yearlings. Billies stay in their own bands except during the November rut. The elders show the younger goats the frequented mountain paths, keeping a watchful eye for predators like grizzlies, cougars, lynx and eagles.
Blood-sucking winter, wood and ear ticks constantly harass mountain goats but rarely take down a healthy beast. Humans have much to learn and benefit from how mountain goats have adapted to the cold, how they tolerate insects and how they exist on such small amounts of food.