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Life on the Rocks

Life on the Rocks: A Portrait of the American Mountain Goat

Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Life on the Rocks
    Book Description:

    The American mountain goat is one of the most elusive and least familiar species of hoofed mammals in North America. Confined to the remote and rugged mountains of the western United States and Canada, these extraordinary mountaineers are seldom seen or encountered, even by those who patiently study them.Life on the Rocksoffers an intimate portrayal of this remarkable animal through the eyes and lens of field biologist and photographer Bruce Smith.

    Color photographs and accounts of Smith's personal experiences living in Montana's Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness Area accompany descriptions of the American mountain goat's natural history. Smith explores their treacherous habitat, which spans the perilous cliffs and crags of the Rocky, Cascade, and Coast mountain ranges. The physical and behavioral adaptations of these alpine athletes enable them to survive a host of dangers, including six-month-long winters, scarce food sources, thunderous avalanches, social strife, and predators like wolves, bears, lions, wolverines, and eagles. Smith also details the challenges these animals face as their territory is threatened by expanding motorized access, industrial activities, and a warming climate.

    Life on the Rocksshowcases the elegance and charm of this little-known creature, thriving in some of North America's harshest wilderness. Smith's volume will appeal to wildlife enthusiasts, wildland travelers, and conservationists interested in the future of the American mountain goat.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-292-4
    Subjects: Biological Sciences, Zoology, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. [Illustration]
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Preface
    (pp. vii-xi)
  5. Part I

    • CHAPTER ONE Beginnings
      (pp. 3-12)

      From American Indians, the Corps of Discovery first heard about a white beast that dwelt among the peaks. They marveled at the shaggy hide purchased from Chinookan Indians along the Columbia River. In 1805 Captain William Clark even glimpsed a live one, albeit at a great distance, near what now is the Idaho-Montana border.

      In 1778 Captain James Cook recorded the earliest hint of the creature’s existence. During stops at British Columbia and Alaskan villages on his around-the-world voyage, he was struck by the spun wool garments worn by the natives. When the Indians pointed out white animals perched high...

    • CHAPTER TWO How to Build a Goat
      (pp. 13-30)

      The mountain goat is defined by the suite of traits that permit it to defy gravity twelve months a year. Specialization starts with the feet. The hard outer walls of the hooves surround a rough yet pliable, convex pad. The animal world’s equivalent of studded tires, the hoof pads conform to rock surfaces providing positraction. The four “toes” (digits two and three comprising the cloven hoof, and digits one and four being the elevated “dew claws” on the rear of the foot) are oversized—a feature that affords a larger gripping surface and distributes the foot load for increased support...

    • CHAPTER THREE Behaving Appropriately
      (pp. 31-54)

      The mountain goat is one of the ruminants—the even-toed, hoofed mammals with complex stomachs where food is fermented by bacteria and protozoans to wring sparse nutrients from plants. Their digestive efficiency permits mountain goats to eat a variety of fibrous plants in winter when the availability of nutritious green forage is limited in temperate and subarctic regions. Although a specialist in many ways, the goat is a generalist in diet. Like most adaptations, this is a behavioral trait borne of necessity.

      During much of the year—November into May—snow suffocates their world. On canyon walls, where cliffs and...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Rewards and Risks
      (pp. 55-78)

      A life spent living on ledges and peaks comes with both rewards and risks. Few other hoofed mammals spend significant time where the mountain goat roams, finding life easier on more forgiving terrain. During my observations I found that only mule deer and more rarely elk shared the Bitterroot haunts of mountain goats. In other goat ranges, mountain sheep also overlap their distribution and may vie for forage. But of all North America’s large herbivores, the mountain goat and musk ox exist most freely from interspecific competition for food and space—a reward of sorts of their desolate domains.


    • CHAPTER FIVE Among the Goats
      (pp. 79-99)

      During three decades of field studies of North America’s large mammals, the environmental and logistical challenges of none—not deer, elk, moose, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, or bears—compared with those I encountered learning about the mountain goat. The chasms and ramparts, the remoteness and weather are both physically and mentally taxing. Other field biologists have discovered the same, some under the harshest of conditions or across expanses of time.

      Stewart Brandborg was among the first to observe and record details of the mountain goat’s life. From 1947 through 1952, he surveyed the animal across a swath of its Montana and...

  6. Part II

    • CHAPTER SIX Across the Continent
      (pp. 103-123)

      Mountain goats are found in ten of the United States and four Canadian provinces and territories. To learn how many animals roam the continent, in 2011 I sent a questionnaire to wildlife managers in each of those fourteen jurisdictions. Based upon their responses and a 2011 report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the population totals roughly 100,000 mountain goats, making it one of the continent’s least abundant hoofed animals.

      The majority of goats roam coastal mountain ranges from Alaska to Washington. Smaller numbers dot the Rocky Mountain and Cascade chains and other, isolated mountain ranges. About half...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Conservation: Local Challenges
      (pp. 125-144)

      Beyond the hazards of severe weather and gravity—environmental constraints by which the animal has been shaped through the diligent fine-tuning of natural selection—North America’s mountain goat faces a host of new challenges. All of these are human-caused.

      Beginning in the 1970s, concerns that many goat populations were dwindling spawned investigations of the species’ ecology from Alaska to Montana. For the first time in 1976, agency scientists and student researchers gathered in Kalispell, Montana, to share their knowledge and concerns about the animal at the First International Mountain Goat Symposium. This began a tradition of convening a biennial meeting...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Global Challenge
      (pp. 145-167)

      Even as some threats to species may be regulated and ameliorated at the local level, others cannot. A growing global challenge now confronts alpine environments and their wild residents, including the mountain goat.

      The evidence is undeniable that our planet is warming, atmospheric accumulation of greenhouse gases is largely responsible, and Earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity are already suffering the effects. These realities are well-documented in countless scientific publications and summarized in comprehensive reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was established in 1988 by the United Nations to assess current scientific, technical, and socio-economic information worldwide...

  7. Epilogue
    (pp. 169-172)

    Only by spending intense time can you know and develop real intimacy with a place. In so doing, you begin to discover features, relations, and worth that casual visitors seldom see. The place—whether a Midwest marsh or New England woodlot, coastal estuary or headland, prairie potholes or desert canyons—then becomes part of you and you part of it. This connection is the germ and nourishment of conservation passion, not merely half-hearted advocacy.

    My time in the Bitterroots cut a deep swathe in my person. That wedge of the mountain goat’s realm became a kindred domicile. Besides the grand...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 173-174)
  9. Suggested Reading
    (pp. 175-176)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 177-178)