Mountain Goats of the San Juan Skyway
Newcomers to Colorado, mountain goats have only been in Colorado’s alpine terrain since 1947 when about 5 dozen goats were introduced as game animals to several locations by the Colorado Division of Wildlife. The last introduction was in 1972. They were introduced to Mount Evans and Mount Bierstadt, two neighboring 14,000-foot peaks. 60 miles west of Denver, the highest paved road in North America, the Mount Evans Scenic Byway climbs over 7,000 feet in its 28-mile length. Goats also were introduced to the Needle Mountains, the Ragged Mountains, the Gore Range and Sawatch Range. From those sites, they have spread elsewhere in the San Juan Mountains and in the Elk and West Elk Mountains, the Ruby Mountains, the Mosquito Range, the Front Range and Grand Mesa.
The original intention was to improve hunting opportunities and revenue for the state from hunting licenses. Besides benefits to hunters and the state’s revenue streams, the outcome has been a blessing for visitors. In addition to incredible scenic views, drives into these mountains offer visitors views of mountain goat and bighorn sheep herds. These herds may be grazing along mountain roadsides and they twists and turn to the treeless expanse of Colorado’s alpine ecosystem. Unfortunately, however, in the summer of 2013, disease came and reduced the goat population on Mount Evans by half. Research has attributed the spread of this disease to human waste from tens of thousands of hikers, cyclists and other visitors to the mountain top.
In spite of their name, mountain goats are actually not true goats. In fact, mountain goats are more closely related to some African antelope species than they are to domestic goats. Feeding primarily on grasses and flowering plants, mountain goats live in herds and family groups. Their white coats provide camouflage in the snow. Their hooves are padded, which helps to grip rocky surfaces. Strong hind legs help them to spring up steep slopes with ease. Thus for a number of reasons mountain goats are uniquely able to survive and thrive during all seasons in the mountain ecosystems into which they were transplanted.
The good news for visitors to the San Juans is that one of the best places to spot mountain goats is near the Million Dollar Highway. Other locations for mountain goat viewing in the San Juans include the Gore Range near Dillon and Weminuche Wilderness. The best time to view these photogenic animals at high elevations is during the late spring and summer. Since mountain goats are born in late May and early June, in early summer visitors have a better chance of spotting nanny goats foraging with their adorable kids. Goats are most active at dawn, through the morning and while foraging in the early evening. But don’t get too close to these large animals. Mountain goats stand about 3 feet tall. Males weigh up to 300 pounds, females as much as 150 pounds. The horns of mountain goats are shiny black and slender. These horns grow up to 8 or 9 inches. Males and females have similar horns.