Alpine Islands: Hunting for Mountain Goats in a Changing Climate

Written by Matt Jackson

September 13, 2021

SEACC Climate Organizer Matt Jackson spotlights how climate change will affect mountain goats on a recent hunt — but hopefully, Alaska will correct its course.

Halfway up the mountain, we start having second thoughts.

First, it was a dash across a steep ravine with nothing to catch you but ferns. Then a thin rope of unknown age hung down a staircase of slippery roots. Climbing up tree roots isn’t particularly remarkable in the Tongass National Forest, but this root ladder featured 100-foot cliffs on each side, and no handrails other than the thin yellow line. The rope ended just in time for the ridge to broaden, putting maybe a dozen sloping, uneven feet between us and the precipice. Then another thin yellow line appeared, offering a route up an otherwise untenable twisting staircase of cedar roots and blueberries. Dry brown pellets of hemlock sawflies cover every tiny leaf, sticking to my sweating arms and calves. Even in moments of deep breathing, trying to calm my nerves, staring at a cedar trunk one foot from my face, the drop-offs on either side are ominously present in my peripheral vision.

Mountain tops showing through mist.

Mountain goats rely on islands of alpine habitats. Credit: Lee House

Only one of us has completed this route before, years ago in running shoes and a daypack. Even in the best of circumstances, this would be a difficult hike on an unofficial trail in the Tongass. But it’s July 31, the day before hunting opens, we have two nights’ gear on our backs, and are hoping to come down with even heavier loads.

I’m with two close friends, and we’re looking for mountain goats.

Jánu in Tlingit or oreanmnos americanus in Latin, these alpine ungulates are the pinnacle of big game hunting in Lingit Aani. Their horns are prized for more than trophies, artists in this region have made steam-bent and intricately carved spoons and ladles from Jánu horns for centuries. Their hair is used in Chilkat weaving, and the meat from mountain goats is marbled, a rarity in wild game. When cooked to tenderness, there’s simply nothing like it.

Down south, mountain goats have earned a reputation for being docile and easy to approach in places like the Olympic Peninsula and Glacier National Park, but here in Sheet’ka Kwaan they’re more often seen from binoculars than up close. Spending most of their year above 2,000 feet, on an already rugged island’s steepest slopes, there is no such thing as an easy mountain goat hunt. To get to this crux, we’ve already driven to the end of our short road system, paddled a mile across a lake, bushwhacked up a valley, and are now just below treeline at about 2,200 feet above sea level.

At the lower edge of the mountain goat habitat. Credit: Lee House

With an average live billy goat weighing 300 pounds, we face a dilemma.

Our packs already weigh about 35 pounds, loaded with rifles and gear. Add 200 pounds of dressed meat, hide, and horns, and we’re packing 100 pounds each down a route that already has me anxious with 35 pounds on the way up. Do we risk it? Do we decide to summit for the experience but not to hunt? Do we turn around now and look for more accessible routes up another mountain? What if it rains tonight, adding more risk to the mix?

Mountain goats are at a similar crossroads, though they don’t know it and have no control over their predicament. Southeast Alaska and neighboring British Columbia are the heart of their range, but recent research from Alaskan Department of Fish and Game biologists is cause for concern. In a 2018 study on 10 coastal Alaskan goat populations, scientists compared different goat population models with different climate models. Every single scenario predicted a decline. In half of the scenarios, every population was extinct by 2085.

It’s not hard to see how climate change will affect mountain goats. The mountains on Shee, or Baranof Island, rise only a few thousand feet above the sea. As the climate warms, the alpine meadows will grow into subalpine brush, shrinking and fragmenting alpine habitat until there’s not enough room left for goats. Unsurprisingly, higher greenhouse gas emissions correlated with faster extinction rates and greater population decreases, even in scenarios that didn’t lead to full-on extinction.

Person foraging mushrooms.

Changing course doesn’t mean going home empty-handed. Credit: Lee House

Kind of like me and my buddies with 35-pound packs already sweating a risky route, our society is already facing climate change impacts, from alternating droughts and floods to landslides and shrinking alpine meadors. Just like my hunting party, every step we take further up the slope of greenhouse gas emissions, the greater risks we face to work our way back down the slope. Eventually, we’ll face a tipping point, whether it’s packing out a 300-pound mountain goat or crossing the threshold of 2 degrees Celsius in warming, where the path back down becomes much, much harder, perhaps insurmountably so.

Not unlike my buddies and I at the crux of a questionable route, our state has a choice to make, one that may feel hard at the moment but has only one acceptable outcome. We can charge blindly ahead, regardless of the risks to ourselves or our group. Or we can reconsider, chart a new course, and live to thrive again on new paths.

On that opening day eve, we made the right choice and turned around. We trusted that there would be more chances to hunt. At least for the next few decades. As a hunter, I hope our state can make the same kind of course correction when it comes to emission reductions, so we don’t lose those chances for future generations.

Alaska is too special to risk it.

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