Biologists study poop to see what's killing Mt. Evans' goats

MOUNT EVANS, Colo. (AP) — Lance Carpenter is standing on a lichen-covered boulder somewhere around 13,000 feet (3,962 meters), his binoculars zeroed in on the target: the backside of a mountain goat kid.

The goat is about 20 yards (18 meters) away, grazing alpine forbs alongside its nanny. Carpenter is keeping up a conversation, but his eyes are on the kid’s tail, waiting for it to rise and stick out horizontally.

The little guy is marked with a red dot on the side of its shaggy, white neck — a dot Carpenter put there a few weeks back with a paintball gun. This is how Carpenter, a wildlife biologist with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, knows that out of all 12 goats in this herd, he needs that kid’s poop.

Then it happens.

“Boom,” says Carpenter, who watches the goat’s poop drop to the ground and then keeps it in his line of sight as he quickly hikes downhill toward the herd.

Wearing blue rubber gloves, Carpenter gently drops the specimen into a sterile plastic bag. It’s the first of four goat scats he will collect during a nearly four-hour expedition at the top of Mount Evans. He considers that a successful day, since his goal is to bag one sample each from 20 different goats every month this summer.

The hope is that the samples will lead to solving a mystery that has stumped Colorado wildlife biologists for seven years: What is killing the mountain goat kids on Mount Evans?

Is it human-related?

Disease came to Mount Evans in 2013, and it wiped out nearly half of the mountain goat population in one season. Kids — which is what goats are called the first year of their lives — were struck so severely with diarrhea that their haunches were stained black.

The alpine terrain of Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt, two neighboring 14,000-foot (4,267-meter) peaks, had about 110 mountain goats before the disease came in the summer of 2013. By the following spring, all but a couple of the kids had disappeared, and the goats numbered about 60.

A generation of goats was gone.

“It was like every kid we saw was having diarrhea,” Carpenter said. “Is it a bacteria, a parasite, a virus? Right now we just don’t know what it is.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife performed two necropsies on goats that year and analyzed a couple of feces samples. But it wasn’t enough to go on, said Karen Fox, a CPW wildlife pathologist who did the necropsies.

The poop was loaded with E. coli bacteria, but what was more disturbing is that the goats had E. coli in their organs and bloodstreams. The bacteria had damaged their intestines and attacked their bodies. Fox, who works in a Parks and Wildlife lab in Fort Collins, is still trying to figure out why. Tests for at least a dozen specific viruses, bacteria, parasites and toxins came up negative.

One theory is that human waste — left behind by the tens of thousands of cyclists, hikers and visitors who cruise up Mount Evans every summer — was somehow sickening the goats.

So far, any evidence of that is circumstantial. But here is what else happened at Mount Evans in 2013.

The vault toilets at Summit Lake, a few paved switchbacks below the top of the 14,200-foot (4,328-meter) mountain, were leaking. When water quality experts from the Bear Creek Watershed tested the lake and nearby wetlands, called fens, they expected to find pristine water at the utility’s highest water source. Instead, they discovered surprisingly high amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and ammonia.

The fens, which serve as watering holes for goats, bighorn sheep, deer and marmots, also had unexpected amounts of red algae.

The water association had noticed elevated levels of nutrients at Mount Evans since 2009, but in 2013, it found a phosphorous discharge that could mean “potentially more total phosphorus discharged into Bear Creek than 10 out of 16 wastewater treatment plants discharge in an entire year,” according to a Bear Creek Watershed report.

And when crews pulled back the manhole covers on the bathrooms, they found that while the solids were contained, the liquid had seeped out, said Russell Clayshulte, manager of the Bear Creek Watershed Association.

Clayshulte and his team believe the high-elevation bathroom leakage was behind a toxic algae bloom downstream in Bear Creek, where greenback cutthroat trout were dying. They tracked one trout as it entered the creek. “Within three or four minutes, he went belly up,” Clayshulte said.

The vault toilets, operated by Denver Mountain Parks, were resealed. The water quality of Summit Lake improved, though it’s still not as clean as expected for an alpine lake.

And for the next five years, the disease that had killed off more than 20 mountain goat kids in 2013 was quiet. Carpenter saw only a few goat kids with diarrhea each year; the disease was still around, but at a low prevalence.

“Did they get better or did they go die? We don’t know,” he said. “Many times I would see them and I wouldn’t ever see them again.”

Carpenter made the tough decision to euthanize one goat kid in 2018 after realizing it wasn’t going to live much longer. “It would get up, and wobble and it would lie down,” he recalled. “All of the kids were running around jumping and playing and this guy, you could just tell, was not doing well at all.”

A necropsy again found loads of E. coli. But there were still so many questions — like what is the normal amount of E. coli for a mountain goat, was the bacteria coming from the environment, were its origins animal or human?

Each year, the annual July mountain goat survey — when Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff traipse across Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt and attempt to count every goat — would show improvement. The population reached between 80 and 90 goats.

“And then in 2019, boom, we saw this again,” Carpenter said.

The diarrhea struck the goats again last fall, arriving so late in the season — in October — that wildlife biologists could hardly study the animals before the snow came. The goats were counted again this July, but Carpenter is still awaiting the results.

“This year we should have a bunch of yearlings,” he said, “and if we don’t, I’ll know that those kids didn’t make it.”

Labs at CSU, Texas A&M are examining the scat

This summer, Carpenter returned to the mountain with a plan. He’s tracking 10 kids and 10 nannies with old collars and oil-based paint, the kind that doesn’t wash off in the rain or in the dust baths that goats give themselves, and he set about bagging their scat.

“The hope is that we can actually track it over time,” he said. “Right now we are collecting normal poop. And as it switches to diarrhea, we are going to be collecting that diarrhea, too. So we will have before and after.”

Carpenter creeps up Mount Evans Highway in his pickup truck, binoculars at his fingertips. When he finds a herd, he grabs his cooler and a hiking pole and follows the goats.

Carpenter has spent hours waiting for them to defecate. The father of two daughters jokes that the process reminds him of potty-training, because no one seems to go when you want them to, even when lightning is looming over the peak.

He’s particularly patient when the goats stop grazing and rest. “I know this sounds dorky,” he says, “but while they’re bedding down like this, when they get up, they will defecate.”

Often, a kid and its mom will rise at the same time, start walking, and both relieve themselves. This is when Carpenter’s hiking pole comes in handy. He marks one poop with the pole so he doesn’t lose track of it while he’s collecting the other one.

Each sample goes in a cooler with ice, then Carpenter sends it FedEx overnight to Fox, his research partner in the Fort Collins lab.

Fox saves a portion of each sample, properly labeled to identify the goat, in a freezer at Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The rest is sent to labs at Colorado State University and Texas A&M, where scientists look for everything from E. coli to worms to a parasite called coccidia.

The work is complicated because, for one thing, even healthy mountain goats have E. coli and coccidia, so that doesn’t explain why kids are dying, Fox said. She’s comparing the results of the wild goat poop with domestic goats, and other researchers around the country have offered to send her scat from healthy mountain goats.

The key, believes Fox, is figuring out why the goats’ intestines are breaking down and allowing the E. coli in their guts to spread throughout their bodies. “These little goats were very sick,” she said. “Ultimately, they had an E. coli infection that got into their blood. Presumably it was in their gut and something allowed it to get into their bloodstream.”

For the sake of solving the mystery and saving the mountain goats over the long term, Fox and Carpenter are hoping the diarrhea returns this year before the snow falls. And they’re hoping they have enough healthy and unhealthy samples to figure it out.

This summer, Mount Evans Highway is closed to vehicles because of the coronavirus pandemic — and the bathrooms are closed, too. The water quality in the high-elevation wetlands has somewhat improved, although Clayshulte with the Bear Creek Watershed remains concerned that the vault toilets leak.

And of course the closure of the toilets hasn’t stopped cyclists and hikers from having to go. For them, Carpenter has a public service announcement: If you poop in the woods, bury it at least 6 inches deep. And pack out your toilet paper. It’s too dry at that elevation for the paper to naturally break down, he said.

Mountain goats, searching for salt, lick the rocks and dig in the dirt where humans have peed. They even lick cars and crawl underneath them to find salt in the undercarriage. When Carpenter is not collecting poop samples, he spends time hazing goats by honking and clapping, and scaring them off with tasers and cattle prods.

At the summit last week, he warned cyclists who were taking selfies with the mountain goats to back off a few more feet. Carpenter says it’s for the good of the goats, which were introduced to the area (there is debate about whether they are native to Colorado) in 1961.

“People come from all over the world here to Mount Evans just to look at mountain goats or sheep,” he said. “Literally all over the world.”