Heliskiing has long been a controversial topic in Haines. The interests of the industry often clash with people who live near heliports and don’t want the noise disturbing their peace and quiet. But there’s another group that’s impacted by helicopter noise: mountain goats. An ongoing study about mountain goat habitat in the Upper Lynn Canal could have implications for helicopter tourism.
The mountain goats that live on peaks towering around Haines and Skagway are unique. For one, they’re some of the most genetically diverse mountain goats in North America. But what we’re going to get into is the unusual nature of where the animals choose to live.
“What are mountain goats in the Haines area doing? Are they wintering up high, or are they wintering down low?” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Kevin White.
White is currently tracking 33 mountain goats in the Upper Lynn Canal. He and his colleagues have put GPS radio collars on the animals so they can follow their travel throughout the seasons.
“In the Haines and Skagway area what we’re starting to unravel is that there’s multiple wintering strategies.”
Imagine you’re a mountain goat, and it’s winter. If the snow pack up high on the mountain is heavy and wet, covering up the ground you forage and making it difficult to get around, you move down to a lower elevation. That’s what happens with mountain goats in coastal climates, like the mountains near Juneau.
But, if you’re a mountain goat in an interior climate, the snow is more shallow and light.
“You know, snow can be blown off ridges and habitats can be exposed, animals can still access food resources up in the alpine.”
So, if you’re an interior climate mountain goat, you stay up high.
The thing is, Haines isn’t coastal or interior – it’s a mix of both climates.
“And so one of our first goals is to understand which mountain goats in this area are wintering down low or up high.”
The answer is, there is no one answer. Some of them winter up high, some move down low. And some are in between.
“We have three different wintering strategies that mountain goats are using in the Haines area. And so one of the key things is like where are mountain goats using each of these strategies to be able to appropriately identify where critical winter habitat is in the Chilkat Valley and over towards Skagway.”
White presented his research during a talk at the Takshanuk Watershed Council offices. He showed slides with little dots representing where one particular mountain goat traveled in the summer and the winter. White says, the goats go back to the same areas winter after winter and summer after summer. Mountain goats are faithful to certain areas.
“That’s also an important consideration when you think about things that might impact an animals’ habitat use. If an animal has really high fidelity to a certain area and they get pushed off that area, that can have important implications.”
Fish and Game will continue with this study for about three more years. Once the department has a clear idea of which swaths of mountain are reliable goat habitat, that can be compared to heliskiing use in Haines and helicopter tourism in Skagway. White says good information will hopefully lead to good management decisions. That way, the unique mountain goats in this area won’t be displaced.
White also presented results from a study showing how mine disturbance impacts mountain goat habitat selection. KHNS will have a report on that topic in the near future.