How does helicopter skiing affect mountain goats in the Upper Lynn Canal? Until now, there wasn’t much research to help answer that question.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game started a study in 2010 tracking where area mountain goats live. Once the study finishes in the next two or three years, it could provide definitive information about what areas need more or less heli-skiing regulation.
The wildlife biologist leading the study gave a presentation in Haines on Tuesday night at the Chilkat Center. More than 30 people filled the room to hear what Kevin White has found out about mountain goats. White says mountain goats are difficult animals to study, which is why there’s not a lot of research out there.
“Mountain goats are one of least studied large mammals in North America,” he said. “Unlike other species like moose, or deer and bears, we have a lot less background information and research on mountain goats.”
But there is one helpful study out of British Columbia. It shows that mountain goats are sensitive to helicopter flights. The study shows when a helicopter goes by, mountain goats have a “movement response” that can last up to two days.
But that’s not what the AD F&G study is tackling. They’re looking at where mountain goats in the Haines-Skagway area live. Or, in scientist speak, their “critical habitat.” Once the state has that information, heli-skiing that overlaps with critical habitat could face tougher restrictions.
Let’s get into what AD F&G has found so far.
White says Chilkat Valley is a genetic diversity hot spot for mountain goats. He projected a map of local mountain ranges with numbers showing the genetic variation between goats that live on neighboring mountains.
“On either side of Berners Bay mountain goats were genetically distinct,” he said. “I was blown away by that because that’s a very small area, any one of us can walk across those flats in a matter of few hours.”
Even when mountain goat populations are separated by just a few miles of river, they’re very genetically different. White says the animals do not like traveling across open, flat areas or swimming.
“The important take-home message is when we talk about there being genetic differences, what that means is there’s very limited movement from one population to another,” White said.
To put it simply, mountain goats aren’t big travelers. They don’t move around much.
Now, the next point has to do with where mountain goats spend their summers and winters.
White says the Chilkat Valley is a transition area between coastal climate and interior climate. That matters because where mountain goats live during the winter depends on the type of snowfall in the area.
“And so the mountain goats’ strategy is to find habitats that have the lease amount of snow,” White said. “Because snow is costly for them to move through as well as it will bury food.”
In coastal areas, where there’s more wet, dense snow, mountain goats move downhill to get away from the snow and they spend the winter at lower elevations.
“This is the case with 95 percent of the mountain goats we studied in the Eastern Lynn Canal area, [they] all wintered at low elevation,” White said. “In the Sitka area all the animals wintered at low elevation. Ketchikan, Coastal BC — these maritime areas that have very heavy wet, deep snow packs.”
For interior areas, mountain goats stay in relatively similar spots during the summer and winter – at high elevations. That’s because the snow is more shallow and light.
White showed graphics of where goats move in the summer and winter on different mountain ranges.
In the mountains where goats winter at high elevations, their habitat is more likely to overlap with heli-skiing.
White says this study will go on for at least two or three more years. He wants to continue to put GPS-linked collars on goats to have a bigger pool of data. Right now they’re tracking 32 animals. But, White says maintaining funding might be an issue.
So what could come of this research?
White showed a map of the Chilkat Valley with red blotches covering some of the mountains. The red marks critical mountain goat habitat. This map could be used in comparison to a map heli-skiing of spots.
“You can go to each specific spot on the landscape and assign it to one of these different categories to help determine where are the places where the hard decisions have to be made,” White said.
Haines Borough Tourism Director Leslie Ross attended the presentation. She says once the heli-skiing regulations are up to review, the borough will take the goat research into consideration.
White plans to come back to Haines in about a year to give an update on the mountain goat study.