Idaho Mountain Goat Hunting
In the spring of 2003, I was drawn for a fall Mountain Goat controlled hunt in the Seven Devils Mountains of central Idaho. After years of applying I finally had my goat tag which kicked off an odyssey that would consume much of my spring, summer, and fall.
Preparing for and executing a Mountain Goat hunt is a challenging experience that many hunters dream of taking. However, considering that relatively few hunters have first hand experience of Mountain Goat hunting, this article serves as a guide to discuss some of the highlights of Mountain Goats, planning for your hunt, and the experience of my first Mountain Goat hunt.
The odds. Idaho has relatively good drawing odds for lifetime species such as Mountain Goat and Bighorn Sheep. By lifetime I mean that you generally get to take only one of such species in your lifetime in the state. It’s also the experience of a lifetime for those who draw. And lifetime could also be taken to mean you can spend a lifetime trying to get a tag. But by good odds I mean if you start applying now, you have a decent chance of getting drawn, sometime … odds in the range of 1/10, or worse, each year, are typical. In other states you may be looking at the 1/100 to 1/1000 range. In the Seven Devils Unit (Unit 18/23, Northern Seven Devils) there are typically 4 tags for about 50 (resident and non-) applicants each year, thus odds of about 1/12, pretty good. In other units the drawing odds vary from 1/5 to 1/25. (But be warned, the unit with 1/5 is excruciating country, with difficult access.) I picked the Seven Devils because I had seen goats in there years before, and the unit was scoutable on weekends during the summer.
In Idaho each year all applicants start afresh, on equal playing field for each hunt. Some states have comparable odds, such as Colorado, once you have some preference points. Other states have much more horrible odds. And if you’re a non-resident applicant, you may also be at a further disadvantage. Some states have preference point systems, meaning you put in for a number of years with almost zilch possibility of drawing, until you have been at it long enough to have a competitive number of points. Each year you don’t draw you gain a point. After a number of years, maybe three to ten, you have enough points to have a decent chance of getting picked.
Lifetime (or 'trophy') species tags also tend to cost more than deer, elk, etc. - on the order of a hundred dollars for the resident, and a thousand for the non-. License, application, and permit fees, regulations, drawing odds, and success rates for these species are generally available through each state’s game departments. If you really want one of these goat tags, you may have to move to a state with good odds, pay the big non-resident dollars (or travel north of the Continental U.S.).
The animal. Mountain Goats are white, except for eyes, horns, the end of their nose, and feet. In name they are sometimes mistaken for Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, though they are quite different. First of all, Mountain Goats are goats, and Bighorn Sheep are sheep. Bighorn Sheep are grey or tan (except for the Dall Sheep, which are white, but they are not found in the Lower 48). The only thing Mountain Goats and Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep have in common, is 'mountain', and even that is in name only. In central Idaho the goats inhabit the mountain tops, even tips, at elevations often between 8000 and 10,000 feet; Bighorn Sheep inhabit the mountain sides and valleys, typically below 7000 feet.
Mountain Goats weigh from 150 to 300 pounds which puts them equal too and in some cases larger than mule deer. Mountain Goats are unique in that male (billy) and female (nanny) both have horns, a single pair curved slightly backward, and for the same age are about the same length, except that the billies’ horns are thicker. A good horn length on either sex is 9 or 10 inches.
The billies are distinguished by their more 'muscular' build – one would think they do a thousand pushups a day to get those shoulders. The females are still pretty chunky - they are perhaps most easily distinguished by having a kid or two and also by looking rather unkempt. Idaho allows the taking of billies and nannies without kids.
Goats eat anything from grasses and flowers to bushes and trees. Indeed while scouting them it will look like they are eating rocks, but it is probably the lichens, grasses, flowers, small bushes and perhaps water mixed in and on the rocks and cliffs. We found a lot of whortleberry in the Seven Devils, evidently on their menu; they are known to eat hemlock in winter. They have also been known to chomp on climbers' socks, perhaps for the salt.
The nannies can look pretty ragged during the early summer – evidently more concerned with their young than their appearance. The billies look awesome – summer is their time. They climb to awesome heights with incredible overlooks, and just watch. At times the goats may be a light brown, or grey, as they clean and take on dust from dust baths. The kids look like white fur balls with eyes and legs.
In late summer and early fall the billies' coats are fairly short (almost appearing crew-cut shaven). As fall progresses the hair length increases. If you really want good hair length on your trophy, hunt as late as possible (into November). But note: looking for goats against rock backdrop is easier than looking for them against snow backdrop, though looking for them in the snow is not impossible.
The terrain. Mountain Goat territory in my opinion is some of the prettiest and most spectacular on the planet. In central Idaho the goats spend the summer near or above timberline, at elevations in excess of 8000 ft. But high, alpine terrain does not guarantee goats; indeed some fantastic goat-looking terrain in Idaho is devoid of them. The Seven Devils are particularly good for the goats in that in just a few miles walk they can drop six or seven thousand feet to terrain that is still rugged but virtually void of snow.
Watching Mountain Goats takes some getting used to. The nannies take their kids as high as possible as soon as possible. When we first saw the nannies with their 'pint-size' kids in the most rugged terrain imaginable, I was honestly worried for their safety. But then I realized that the Fish and Game Department didn’t need to rescue them – indeed they were up there the safest – as the nannies were taking their kids above the predators.
Interestingly, the high country is very dynamic in the summer months. Each week things are different. Snow leaves fast. Ice comes off each lake almost overnight. Mosquitoes arrive in force quickly. The terrain dries quickly after the snow leaves and the groundwater stored in the relatively scant soils is quickly depleted. By the end of August some of the lakes we used for swimming earlier and thought would be good places to watch for game - disappeared. Springs on the topo maps quit 'springing'.
I had read that they can climb 1500 vertical feet with apparent ease – but I think the writer of that statement was watching from a distance. Up close – they suck air just like you and I. But unlike us, they can climb faster, a lot faster, and over fiercer terrain. If you get up high with them – you can get some fabulous photographs. They don’t seem particularly bugged by people. At a distance of 10 yards or less, their sharp, shiny black horns look pretty deadly – maybe that’s why they don’t worry much. They’ll let you get amazingly close – but once they don’t like being around you anymore – they run across rugged terrain at incredible speed. Don’t be in their way as they go from place to place in their domain.
Weather. Where Mountain Goats live typically gets winter early. In Idaho we enjoy relatively dry autumns, and often up until November, if 'weather' arrives, it’s only for a day or two. From November on, however, bad weather can set in for weeks at a time. Know the mountains you are hunting. The Cascades in Washington may get weeks of continuous rain any time of year. Assuming your are in good enough shape to climb around in goat terrain, without a fall, hypothermia will be your biggest danger. Use layered clothing and keep yourself dry. A good mountain tent may be an important item on your list. Roads to your area may close before the season does. For a hunt in early or mid-September, you may be able to expect warm or Indian-Summer weather, where your biggest challenge will be keeping the meat cool after your kill. If you hunt later, you must prepare for colder and wet weather, and early snow.
Hunting tactics. Depending on the access to your unit, you may be able to glass for goats from the road. Certainly you will be able to glass for them from trails if there are such in your unit. Or, the road end may be the start of a significant pack trip to get you up into their terrain. When they are out in the open, their white bodies contrasted to the surrounding rocks allow them to be seen from thousands of yards. You probably won’t need a spotting scope to see them, but you might bring one along if you really want to sort out good animals from record-book ones. When they bed down in the shade of some ledge or outcropping, they comparatively disappear. Sometimes they wander into 'camp'; but most of the time expect to see them up on the jagged mountain sides, tops, or slides. Sometimes they come down for water. They are most active at first light and last light. Much of their 'camp wanderings' are done at night, which is a good a testament as any to the wily goats' indifference to human presence.
Though you may see them from a road, don’t count on it. And if you do see one from the road, certainly don’t count on shooting one from the road. While they may be quite visible at over a mile away, you will want to stalk to within 200 yards for a rifle shot, and much closer with a bow or pistol. You will also have to evaluate whether you will be able to extract an animal in the terrain they are in, or what will happen if you wound the animal. Wounded Mountain Goats are known to take a 'suicide leap' with their last breath. Such a leap may take them off a cliff and into a bad place and / or may break a horn. So wait for a good kill shot in reasonable terrain.
As with any outdoor adventure in alpine or rugged terrain, I recommend at least one partner. A fall or accident while alone could be disastrous. In some cases pack animals can be used goat hunting, though the pack animals should not be counted upon to get you up to the goats themselves. We did our scouting and hunting by backpack.
Our 2003 Hunt. I made several calls to people who work in or around the Seven Devils Mountains to see what information I could glean about the Mountain Goat whereabouts, how and when I could get in there, road and trail information, and what restrictions there are in the area (as the hunt unit was overlapped by designated wilderness). The main road into the area opened up a week or so early, late June. Water and mosquitoes were abundant early on. As the summer progressed the snow receded and we were able to negotiate passes and places that were earlier quite dangerous. In our six scouting trips (some of which were quite short) we saw around twenty goats, a mix of billies, nannies, and kids.
The hunt opened up Labor Day weekend. I enticed two very fit friends to accompany me – one with experience goat hunting, the other with the lure of great fly fishing in the nearby lakes. The first frost and lack of rain killed some of the greenery up high. We had to drop to timberline for water and camp. Early on we found two groups of nannies and kids, but we had difficulty finding the billies. By late afternoon the second day I spotted a nice billy a mile or so away – but I was at that moment alone and very 'out of steam'.
The following day we determined, both by our own observation and information from other hunters in similar conditions, that the billies had probably dropped down into the timber for moisture and shade. We were faced with deciding between three options: 1) drop down into the timber after them; 2) retreat and come back later in the fall after some moisture and cooler temperatures would release them higher; or 3) keep hunting the scenic high ground, in hopes of still finding one. Requirements of work and home made subsequent trips unattractive; I had 'hunted' enough according to my family. And I didn’t want to push the timber in such otherwise beautiful terrain, so we decided to keep hunting high, but we would keep our eyes on the two nice nannies (one with kid) that grazed above camp most of the duration of our trip.
By day end we hadn’t found the billies. Contact with our fly fisherman at camp indicated the nannies and kid had not only stuck above camp, they had descended to camp, and were trying to get through camp, to some fortified timber on the other side. I would find out later that they walked within 10 yards of my bow and arrows, parked at a tree near our stuff.
By the time we descended the high terrain and were above camp, the nannies and kid were still in vicinity, so we put on a stalk. We descended a rock slide as quiet as possible, and on the few occasions we knocked some rocks loose, we simply played still. Goats are not particularly concerned with the sound of rolling rocks, as they start rocks rolling all the time. We closed the distance to about 200 yards, and very much downhill, and I took the nanny (the one without kid) by rifle. As it turned out she was quite an animal. Probably past kid-bearing years, her horns were nearly 9 inches long, each, and she was probably as many years old. (Her meat was good, but tough, as we discovered later.)
We skinned and boned her quickly, letting the meat cool in the shade. I spent most of the rest of the day cleaning and then salting the hide. For a goat, if you want to preserve the hide and cape (for mounting – remember, this is a lifetime hunt), and especially in warm weather, bring between 5 and 10 pounds of plain salt to draw the moisture out of the hide.
The next morning we bagged the meat and split it three ways. I took the head, hide and 20 or so pounds of meat; my two partners took about 30 or more pounds of meat each. We wanted to make only one trip out, so we ate all the food we could and stashed the rest (which is there to this day, awaiting my return). We had a seven mile hike out, mostly downhill, with packs weighing seventy pounds plus. The excitement of the hunt (and fishing for my fly-fisherman and other friend) carried us to the trail end – it was indeed the hunt of a lifetime.