The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is getting close to finalizing its study on mountain goat habitat in the Haines and Skagway area. Biologists hope the findings will inform decisions on helicopter skiing and other activities shown to impact mountain goats.
Last fall, a Haines committee met several times to review and recommend changes to the borough’s heliski boundaries map. After a lot of work, the committee’s final product was cast aside because of conflict of interest concerns and wildlife studies like this one that are still in the works.
“Our study isn’t designed to examine the effects of helicopter skiing or human activity on mountain goats,” said Fish and Game biologist Kevin White at a recent presentation in Haines. “It’s more oriented towards figuring out where important mountain goat winter habitat is and mapping that across the landscape and use that knowledge to help people who are making decisions about land management decide where appropriate places are for different types of activities.”
Over the past several years, biologists captured and put radio collars on 67 goats in the Haines/Skagway area. They track the animals as they move along mountain ranges throughout the year. This, combined with aerial surveys, will help the researchers build a map that shows goats’ summer and winter habitat in the Northern Lynn Canal.
One of White and his colleagues’ discoveries has to do with where area mountain goats spend winters. Goats in coastal climates tend to winter at lower elevations. Their counterparts in interior climates winter at higher elevations. Haines has a transitional clime, so the goats are more unpredictable.
“We have a couple places like Takhin Ridge and the Kicking Horse that are complicated,” White said. “Where on average most of the animals are wintering below tree line, but then we have some animals that are wintering above. So we actually even see mixed wintering strategies within a given geography.”
This variety of wintering patterns will be taken into account in the habitat map that comes out of the study.
White gave examples of how the habitat map could be used with heliski maps. He said in some cases, there might be no overlap, or the heliski boundaries could be shifted slightly.
“But then it’s not necessarily always that simple,’ White said.
He showed an example of winter goat habitat at high elevations in the Four Winds Mountain.
“And so in this case what might need to occur, if mountain goat conservation is the goal, would be to contract the area where helicopter skiing is allowed,” White said. “And this would be a harder decision to make because it would be taking area off the map from helicopter skiing.”
The chair of the most recent Haines heliski map committee, Ron Jackson, asked White if he thinks the borough heliski map will have much overlap with goat habitat. White says without question, there are conflicts.
“That’s going to be the hard challenge for the managers, is to decide how do you deal with that situation?” he said.
Haines is still deciding what process to follow with its next attempt to review heliski map boundaries. That’s set to happen after Fish and Game finishes this study, which White said should be in a couple months.
White also gave a big picture reason why people may want to make mountain goat conservation a priority: climate change. He put together research that shows climate change will have a negative impact on goats because warm temperatures hurt their chances of survival. White said, best case scenario, Alaska goat populations decline. Worst case scenario, mountain goats in the state could go extinct within 70 years.