When Captain Cook first visited Southeast Alaska in 1778, Tlingit traders gave him the hides of animals never seen before by Europeans. Cook thought they were white bears, but they were mountain goats. Because mountain goats' natural range was limited to the rugged mountains of northwestern North America, these shaggy, sure-footed animals were a mystery to early explorers in Alaska.
Most of the world's mountain goats are found in Southeast Alaska and British Columbia. Goats are often confused with Dall sheep, but there are no Dall or bighorn sheep in Southeast Alaska - only goats.
Both male and female goats (billies and nannies) have horns and distinct "beards." Goats are strong animals with prominent shoulders. They climb by pulling themselves up as much as by pushing with their hind legs, and their six-inch-thick white wool coats enhance their burly appearance. They depend on their agility in steep, rocky terrain to escape predators such as wolves.
Mountain goats have a unique foot structure, which has hard, sharp edges surrounding a soft inner area. The two halves of a mountain goat's hoof can move independently, giving it a better grip while climbing. The soft, inner pad acts like a suction cup when weight is applied, providing good traction on rocks.
Goats have an aggressive social structure. Nanny goats are most often the aggressors and claim the best cliffs for feeding and rearing young. Nannies give birth in mid-to-late May and kids only a few hours old can keep up with adults.
Nannies and billies segregate in spring and summer. Nannies with newborns band together and form "nursery flocks." These groups may include 20 or 30 animals, but tend to break into smaller groups of five to 10 goats that separate and regroup. Billies are found solo or in bachelor groups of a half-dozen animals.
Mountain goats are related to antelope, bison, cattle and sheep. They evolved in the Old World and migrated to North America about 100,000 years ago when Alaska and Asia were connected during the ice age.
What to Look for: Scan the green alpine slopes and rocky cliffs with binoculars, looking for a scattering of white spots. A close look reveals these are flocks of goats, their shaggy coats a more yellowish, off-white color than lingering snow patches or granite outcrops. Grazing flocks tend to drift across the slope, but it is sometimes possible to catch the movement of a running animal or kids at play.