Updated on June 26, 2018
Updated on June 26, 2018
By Katarzyna Nowak, Safina Center Fellow
I’m in the Yukon to study winter coat molt in mountain goats in relation to a warming climate. A friend asked me recently, “What is the Yukon saying to you these days?”
Having arrived just over a month ago, I told her: “Everyone seems to have a recent animal story.” In this Canadian territory the size of Spain with some 35,000 people, nonhumans are a part of every single day: grizzly and black bears, lynx, porcupines, snowshoe hares, bald and golden eagles. People around town know where eagles’ nests are active and which neighborhood a bear passed through last night.
Looking at the news, I saw that a recent review of wildlife studies around the world shows that animals are becoming more nocturnal to avoid humans. As I read, I thought that into the future, such shifts in animals’ routines may be pushed further by climate change: being active at night may mean avoiding the heat of the day. I also thought that surely, the findings apply mostly to areas outside of the Yukon and where the human footprint is heavier. However, after some recent days in the field, I must report that the Yukon is not exempt from such human effects.
Accompanied by a new friend, Whitehorse-based photographer Atsushi Sugimoto, we set out for slopes south of Montana Mountain in Carcross/Tagish First Nation (CTFN) territory. From the Klondike highway that connects Yukon’s Dawson City and Skagway, Alaska, we counted some 40 mountain goats along a short stretch of road and spotted another 10 on the opposite slopes across Tagish Lake’s Windy Arm.
The mountain sides are crisscrossed with old mining trails and eerie skeletons of tall, wooden structures; signs at a gravel pit warn of arsenic contamination. Some of the streams coming off the mountain run orange. I wondered how the mountain goats are affected by heavy metals and if anyone has analyzed their hair before.
The next morning, a woman living nearby stopped by our campsite. She described how hikers, hunters, poachers—and us researchers too—all contribute to disturbing the area’s mountain goats. She told us about how, in the seven years she’s lived there, she has watched the goats go from visiting the lake and creeks for drinking in the daytime to turning to drinking entirely at night.
This, she said, was because of increased human presence. It was also because of heavier road traffic, as the goats must cross the road to get to the lake. She lamented that there are no signs anywhere telling people to keep away from the goats during their “kidding period”, which spans at least May 15-June 15. She asked me to suggest to Yukon authorities that such a sign go up on one of the old mining roads frequently used by hikers. She also advised me to let her landlord know what I was doing up here as he has mineral claims on the land. I took his name and number.
I must admit that I was skeptical about the lake visits by the goats: looking up at the white creatures on rugged cliffs above us it was hard to imagine that they would come some 500 meters or more down to drink at the lake on a regular basis.
So Atsushi and I explored the roadside area and sure enough, we found shed hair and fresh pellets. That evening, I set up a remote camera on what looked to be an active goat trail. We returned in the morning, expecting to have captured nothing. Even if they were crossing, what were the chances we’d get photos in just 8 hours?
The camera captured over 130 images of mountain goats coming down and going back up all night long, from shortly before midnight to before 5AM. These goats were crossing the road to get to the lake – accessing it at a point where there is a break in the highway barrier. I was astounded as, we had been parked on the side of the road until about 11 PM and no goats were low down or even half-way down the steep slopes.
En route back to Whitehorse – Yukon’s capital and only city – Atsushi introduced me to his friend, carver and artist Keith Wolfe Smarch, a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation (CTFN), who had just sold a striking mountain goat headdress to a collector. Keith is a goat hunter and told me about how low the goats come during some parts of the year; he did not mention their use of the lake. He also said, “make sure our FN know what you’re doing up there.” I told him that I had shared my research proposal with the CTFN office, had been granted a permit, but that I would make a point of connecting with CTFN more.
In front of the new Carcross Learning Center, Atsushi and I did just that: meeting three elders who told us about the changes in climate, the more dangerous conditions on ice, the increase in abundance of suckers, fish that thrive in more tepid waters, in lakes and streams which they said have warmed noticeably. It is this kind of deep knowledge that comes from being attached to the land that can inform scientists and newcomers.
As the climate continues to warm, “the mountain goats will follow the glaciers or stand in the wind,” one of the elders offered.
When it comes to their double-layer coats, perhaps the goats will shed them earlier in spring or at a faster rate, or maybe their hair diameter will shrink. Maybe they will cope by seeking shade, especially after earlier snowmelt and no respite in the form of lying in snow patches or climbing upward. Or perhaps they will need to visit lakes and creeks more often.
The question remains: how exactly are the mountain goats using the lake? Is it for more than drinking, for instance for standing in or even swimming in the water to cool down? If so, then this information could help inform climate-resilient conservation management and planning, as well as husbandry of mountain goats in captive facilities.
As a newcomer, it’s too soon for me to start making recommendations. But if only the mountain goats could lay their own claims to the Windy Arm of Tagish Lake. Maybe this section of the road could be a suitable place for a wildlife crossing structure to help this lake-using mountaineer (and its neighbors) cross a barrier that people created.
The Mountain Goat Molt Project relies mainly on participatory science in the form of mountain goat photo contributions from members of the public. It is supported with funds from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y). K. Nowak’s co-investigator is Professor Joel Berger of WCS and Colorado State University.