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Bad Bucks & Mountain Goat Genus

By Angela Von Weber-Hahnsberg

There is a cell phone commercial currently on television where a shaggy little buck steals a sandwich from some hikers. When one hiker tries to persuade him to give it back, the goat kicks out a defiant hind leg, knocking his entire backpack down the mountain. Bucks do have a reputation for…well, let’s call it objectionable behavior, especially when does are involved. But serious, unprovoked aggression towards humans is not something usually associated with dairy goat bucks.

It is apparent that the makers of that commercial were under the impression that mountain goats are simply wild scrub goats, but ironically, their featured buck looks like a loveable little guy, in spite of his ornery attitude. I must admit, as a Texan living on the prairie, for whom the closest things to mountains are the fire ant hills in our fields, I know very little about real mountain goats. I have never seen the real thing. So when I heard about hiking trails in Olympic National Forest in Washington being closed this past summer due to aggressive mountain goat behavior, I was shocked. Did bucks left to their own devices in the wild become violent predators?

Upon further investigation, I learned that a male mountain goat had actually killed a Washington hiker in 2010. The story was that while enjoying a weekend outing on the trails with his wife and a friend, Robert H. Boardman, a 63-year-old registered nurse and musician, was gored in the leg by a crazed mountain goat. Boardman, an experienced outdoorsman, had been trying to carefully shoo the animal away from their picnic lunch when it attacked. Afterwards, terrifyingly, it refused to budge, standing menacingly over Boardman so that no one could safely get to him to help. Finally, a park ranger was able to drive the mountain goat away by pelting it with rocks. By then, however, it was too late—Boardman had lost too much blood, and had no pulse when CPR resuscitation efforts were finally begun about an hour later.

Unfortunately, this tragedy was not the first time that a mountain goat has gored a hiker. Park officials attribute this disturbing trend of aggression to several factors. Deep snowpack forces mountain goats into areas close to trails, and the trails themselves offer a strange but tantalizing treat—hikers often urinate on the rocks, essentially creating a salt lick for wildlife. The mountain goat which attacked Boardman was also in rut.

As much as dairy goat bucks can sometimes "act out" when in rut, I was not aware of any becoming this dangerous. Researching further, I was relieved to find that the mountain goats of North America are not true goats at all—in fact, they belong to a completely different genus. Rather than being a member of Capra, as our beloved dairy goats are, they are the only species in the genus Oreamnos.

Both species are distantly related, belonging to the same subfamily of "goat-antelopes," but the differences are significant. The feet of the Oreamnos americanus, for example, not only have cloven hooves that can spread wide apart for stability, but also special inner pads that give them traction on steep mountainsides. They also sport sharp dewclaws on their feet to prevent them from slipping. Their front shoulders are built with extremely powerful muscles for climbing, as well.

Instead of being solely browsers, they are grazer-browsers, subsisting sometimes on fir and spruce, nettles, and sometimes on grasses and mosses, as they become seasonally available. Both billies and nannies, as they are still called, are extremely protective of their territory, whether to secure their food source, guard their offspring, or keep other males away from their mates.

So while I could see even my little Nigerian Dwarf buck mischievously stealing someone’s lunch, luckily the more violent behavior of the Oreamnos americanus is far removed from our world of domesticated dairy goats. Standing next to an angry mountain goat to snap its picture on a cell phone is probably not the best idea—though I think the company’s choice for their commercial was more lovable than livid.

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