BOZEMAN, Mont. (AP) — Biologists are planning to wrangle mountain goats atop the Bridger Range this December to gather data on the population’s movement patterns and health, something officials hope will help inform future management.
On a day between Dec. 10 and Dec. 18 when the weather is good, a helicopter crew from Fairbanks, Alaska, will fly across the Bridgers to study up to 30 mountain goats. Four to five wildlife biologists with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks will restrain the animals, hobble their legs and transport them to a processing site somewhere in the mountains.
After screening the goats and collecting samples, biologists will fit the animals with GPS collars and release them back into the wild. Over the next three years, the biologists will analyze the goats’ movement across the Bridgers and write about it, according to Kelly Proffitt, a wildlife research biologist for FWP who is leading the project.
Proffitt and others with the department have been talking about studying mountain goats in the Bridgers over the past year, she said. There are two main components of the project — analyzing the animals’ habitat selection and surveying their health.
Proffitt said she’ll be looking to see whether the goats’ critical seasonal range overlaps with areas seeing lots of recreation. The department is working with the Forest Service, designing the project to meet the agency’s needs, she told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
Depending on what the study reveals, future management could involve identifying areas for goat relocation or implementing seasonal closures in sensitive kidding areas. The Forest Service is responsible for land management decisions.
“This is about trying to learn about habitat and how to make it better for mountain goats,” Proffitt said. “They are specialized and live in extreme conditions.”
While mountain goats are native to areas in Montana primarily on the western side of the Continental Divide, over the years the goats have been relocated to different areas in southwestern Montana. The Bridger Range has had goats since a population was established there in 1969. Since then, the population has reached an all time high of 127 goats, as recorded in 2019.
Emily Almberg, an infectious disease ecologist with the FWP wildlife program, is working on the other part of the study — finding out what pathogens are present in the goat population.
Almberg plans to sample the goats, screen them for common viruses and parasites and record trace minerals, body conditions and any pregnancies. But she’ll particularly be looking out for signs of mycoplasma ovipneumoniae.
Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae is a bacteria that infects the respiratory systems of wild mountain goats and bighorn sheep and domestic goats and sheep. It often causes large die-offs in herds. The bacteria is particularly deadly for bighorn sheep, often causing 20% to 60% of a herd to perish, Almberg said.
While the disease’s impacts on bighorn sheep have been well-documented, less data has been collected on its effects on mountain goats. Almberg said that’s because scientists have handled fewer goat populations.
If translocation efforts were to occur in the future, FWP would want to know what the risk would be of the pathogens spilling over to or from other herds, Almberg said. The data could help researchers decide whether the members of the Bridgers herd are suitable for reintroduction elsewhere.
Biologists are still in the early stages of studying mountain goats in the Bridgers, and no reintroduction or translocation project has been initiated, Almberg said.