Retrieved radio tracking collar for B.C. biologists
Two local U.S. Forest Service backcountry rangers found themselves on an unexpected mission last month, when they volunteered to search for a mountain goat that had died in the Pasayten Wilderness near the Canadian border.
The goat had been fitted with a radio collar as part of a research project by biologists in British Columbia’s Cathedral Provincial Park, just across the U.S.-Canada border. Biologists were monitoring goats to learn more about where they wandered to help them with management of the species.
One goat traveled into the Pasayten Wilderness (the northernmost part of the Methow Valley Ranger District) and signals from his collar showed he spent most of the last four years there. In late March, biologists received a mortality signal from the goat’s collar, indicating he had died. They wanted to find the goat to retrieve the collar and determine the cause of death.
That’s where Amber Deming and Zachary Winters came into the picture. They are rangers with the Methow Valley Ranger District, and were planning a week-long backcountry ski trip into the Pasayten Wilderness. Just before they embarked on their adventure, the Methow Valley Ranger District got a call from the Canadian researchers, asking if they could fly a helicopter into the Pasayten Wilderness to find the goat.
Because mechanized travel is prohibited by law in designated wilderness areas except in some emergencies, the Forest Service determined using a helicopter wouldn’t be appropriate.
So Deming and Winters volunteered to take a side trip to try to locate the goat and hopefully retrieve its collar, which contained data that would help the biologists in their research.
The Canadian biologists were able to provide Deming and Winters a GPS location for the last signal from the goat, which happened to be only about 2 miles away from their planned route.
“It was truly luck that it happened to be so close to where we planned to go anyway,” Winters said.
Their planned ski trip was about 50 miles total. They traveled 20 miles by snowmobile to begin the trip, and went 16 miles by skis the first day, getting caught in a snowstorm that night. They stayed in place for a day and headed out the next day, April 2, to try to find the goat.
Found on a small cliff
As they approached the location provided by the Canadian biologists — in the Andrews Creek drainage and Cathedral Peaks area — they saw avalanche debris on a steep hillside. They determined the goat was somewhere on that slope, and began to work their way up.
“The avalanche was 10 days old and was stable, with refrozen debris,” Winters said. “We were able to keep our skis on until about 200 feet below him. It was a little bit technical but felt comfortable.” Conditions that day made it safe to be there without the threat of further wet loose avalanches occurring, Deming said.
They located the goat on a small cliff, “peacefully wedged against a tree” after being caught in the avalanche, Winters said. Because it had been so cold, the goat was not decayed at all, and looked like he was sleeping.
It was surprising, Winters said, that there were no signs of scavenging on the goat. Animals killed in avalanches are a major source of food for wolverines, he said.
“We removed the radio collar and ear tag,” Deming said. “We were also able to remove a lower incisor and got a hair sample.”
The Canadian biologists had provided Deming and Winters with a worksheet to collect information on things like the goat’s body condition and the site he was found. Working with the biologists was a highlight of the experience, Deming said.
“This wilderness scavenger hunt … sparked a lot of coordination with the Canadian biologists. We were able to talk with them about management of mountain goats,” Deming said.
“In the Cathedral Peak and Cathedral Lake area we frequently see nannies and kids,” Deming said. “The data that the Canadians shared show there are hot spots where mountain goats like to go.” They also learned from the biologists that the most common causes of mortality in mountain goats are avalanches and falls from heights, rather than predators.
Collaborating with the Canadian biologists will help them in their jobs as backcountry rangers, Deming and Winters said. “It was a great experience. It will allow us to share information when we make public contact with hikers and backpackers,” Deming said.
Being around goats
The Canadian biologists said they encourage visitors in parks and wilderness areas where mountain goats live to use established toilets. Goats will seek out the salt in urine and that may bring them in contact with people.
In places without toilets, the biologists advise urinating on rocks, to discourage goats from digging in the soil to get at the salt in the urine. Additionally, people should be careful to keep dogs away from goats, which can be aggressive if dogs approach. Likewise, people should never approach a goat.
Deming has been a wilderness ranger with the Forest Service for 17 years, and lead wilderness ranger for the Methow Valley Ranger District for 10 years. Winters has worked for the district for 10 years and is currently Developed and Dispersed Recreation Supervisor.
The rangers emphasized that traveling into the backcountry during winter should only be attempted by people with adequate training and experience in avalanches and survival skills.
“Risk management is something we’re constantly thinking of, especially when we’re far away from help,” Winters said. “We have 25 years of avalanche training between the two of us.”
At the end of their backcountry trip, the rangers gave the goat’s radio collar to Scott Fitkin, a wildlife biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. Fitkin was traveling to British Columbia to collaborate with biologists there as part of his job, and was able to return the collar in person.