STRAWBERRY MOUNTAINS - Our ancestors aren't the only species with an urge to head West. Rocky Mountain goats began venturing this way more than 10 years ago.
"They're moving off the Elkhorns and pioneering to new areas," said Ryan Torland, wildlife biologist for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "They're tremendous pioneers."
The goats' impulse to move westward may stem from an innate familiarity with the land. Archaeologists discovered evidence that goats were once indigenous to Oregon. They vanished before or soon after the white man settled in the West. The reason for the goats' extinction is unknown.
In the 1980s, ODFW transplanted 21 goats from Washington, Idaho and Alaska into the Elkhorn Mountains near Baker City, and the goat population there soon flourished. Today, there are estimated to be about 200 goats in the Elkhorns.
In the late 1990s, goats were spotted in the Strawberry Mountains. Wildlife biologists believe that the only likely answer for their sudden appearance there is that they migrated from the Elkhorns. A scattered few goats have been seen on Dixie Mountain and Vinegar Hill.
"These are likely staging areas," Torland said.
Pioneering goats are usually young billies, said Torland. One young billy was hit by a car and killed near Unity in 2005.
A survey conducted in 2005 documented successful goat reproduction in the Strawberries.
"We think there were about a dozen of them there," Torland said.
On July 16 and 17, ODFW biologists, Forest Service employees and volunteers from the Oregon Hunters Association brought 13 more goats from the Elkhorns to the Strawberry Mountains.
Salt was used to bait the goats to an area where they were captured with drop nets. The captured goats were hobbled and blindfolded to help keep them calm. To keep their body temperature down, they were doused with water. They were not sedated so they wouldn't be groggy and susceptible to prey when they were set free. The animals were then transported in crates by truck to their new home.
There were two veterinarians on site July 16 and one on July 17 to immunize the goats and administer antibiotics to help fight infection brought on by stress.
"All of them were in good shape," Torland said.
Each goat was ear-tagged. The tags are color coded for surveying purposes and identification. Blood tests were taken from the goats and tissue samples were also taken for future DNA use.
Six goats were collared with the VHF radio transmittors, and two were collared with GPS collars. The GPS collars were donated to ODFW and cost $5,700. Biologists programmed the GPS collars to link with a satellite every 30 minutes for the first month and then every three hours after that. After two years, the collars break off, and they can be reused.
Torland said an important reason for the recent transplant was to add to the goats' gene pool, which will prevent inbreeding in the goats already established in the Strawberries.
"This will help curtail that and maybe make the population more viable," Torland said.
Ten of the goats released were females, including five of breeding age. The males were young billies. Full-grown billies are more elusive than females and young males, and tend to be too large to capture and transport.
"They rarely come to the salts, and they don't hang out with nannies and kids," Torland.
Full-grown billies outweigh nannies by about 100 pounds.
Both sexes have horns, but billies' horns are larger at the base.
"Lengthwise they are about the same," Torland said.
Billies use their horns to show dominance over rival males during mating season.
The older nannies should breed this fall and give birth next June, Torland said. Nannies generally have only one kid, but can give birth to twins or even triplets.
During the spring and summer months, goats begin to store winter fat. They will eat grass or anything green. In the winter they live off fat reserves and eat moss, lichens and pine needles.
Hunting tags issued for Rocky Mountain goats are decided by a drawing and are a once-per-lifetime tag. A hunting season in the Strawberries will be established when there are enough billies to sustain a harvest.
"It could be four or five years, but who knows. There's no magic number," Torland said.
Rocky Mountain goats are designed for climbing steep, rocky mountains. They may be seen in the areas of High Lake and Little Strawberry, but could roam a great distance from where they were released.
"The goats will probably wander quite a bit before setting up a home range and will likely find goats already there," Torland said.