Updated: Sep 4
Standing stately, overlooking its territory is the mountain goat of Washington’s Cascade Mountains. His world is a vertical world of snow, ice, and rocky crags to which few mortals would venture because of its harsh climate. Here gale-force winds scour cliffs and temperatures plunge into the minus double digits. The fur that insulates this beast matches his surroundings—it is white, the color of winter.
The Mountain Goat: Stately but Alarmed
With massive shoulders, lowered haunches, and muscular, pantaloon-shaped legs, he is well adapted for scaling the jagged cliffs of the Cascades. His pure whiteness is accented with black—four black traction-gripping hooves, two black, pointed horns on his crown, and large, black, penetrating eyes. One would think that such a creature that inhabits such a remote place would be free from concern. This is not the case for this monarch of the high country for his tail stands upright, signifying his alarm and apprehension.
The Tribe’s Relationship with Their Brother
Just below his territory, in the foothills of the Cascades, lives the 200-member Sauk-Suiattle Tribe which has enjoyed a unique relationship with the mountain goat for thousands of years. To them, the mountain goat represents the purest of all spirits because it makes its home so close to the heavens. Their entire society has been organized around its relationship to the mountain goat. Historically, the tribe has used the mountain goat in numerous ways, from carving ceremonial objects from its hooves and horns to making clothing and blankets from its fur and hides. They also dried their meat to sustain themselves through the winter. Even their tribal leadership is fashioned after the mountain goat, being matriarchal in nature. When hunting the tribe would not take just any goat. They carefully chose animals that were older and no longer contributing to the herd. They purposely limited their hunt to ensure the survival of their “brother” who, in turn, was taking care of them.
In contrast, during the early part of the last century, non-Indian tourists in boats on Washington’s Lake Chelan would shoot up to fifty mountain goats at a time just for the pleasure of watching them tumble off a cliff and splash into the water. Believing that resources were inexhaustible, frontiersmen hunted the beast in large numbers decade after decade. Even after more enlightenment and a limited hunting system instituted by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, permits were issued without any real knowledge of the goat’s numbers or how quickly they were reproducing. These historic choices have had a negative impact on the mountain goat’s well-being, but not just for them. For the Sauk-Suiattle tribe, who have practiced subsistence hunting using a sustainable approach for thousands of years and whose very society is built around the mountain goat, it has meant an end to a way of life. For the last twenty-five years, the tribe has chosen not to hunt their beloved mountain goat.
Status of the Goat
Today, Washington’s mountain goat population is estimated at 3,000. Before the non-Indian settlement of Washington, they are thought to have numbered over 10,000. A preliminary report produced by the U.S Forest Service, based on population modeling, points to over-harvesting as the likely reason for the decline of the mountain goat. When a game animal is harvested at a higher rate than it can replace itself through reproduction, its numbers go down. Sometimes extirpation is the result, or even worse, extinction.
Study to Restore Them
In response to the declining numbers of mountain goats, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has reduced their hunting permits to just twenty-two goats this year. In 2001, the Department launched an ambitious study called the Mountain Goat Research Project. With over half a million dollars spent thus far in studying the animal, the Department hopes to bring about its recovery. In 2002, the author aided Dr. Clifford Rice, the head biologist on the project, in briefly capturing, taking biological samples, and attaching tracking collars to some goats. The data obtained will be used to get a better understanding of their habitat use.
It is the hope of this author and multitudes of others that the monarch of the high country will be restored to its former glory.
Chadwick, Douglas H. A Beast the Color of Winter. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books,
Olson, David. “Tribe Searching for Its Cultural Survival.” Seattle Times 28 Jul. 2001,