Mountain Goats

Mountain Goat Facts

Mountain Goats ['moun-tən] [gōts]

Sure-footed member of the antelope family with backward curving horns and thick white coats that lives in the mountains.

Mountain goat

Mountain goats live in the United States and Canada. In Idaho, most goat populations are located in the central part of the state. Mountain goats can be found in the steep rocky areas of Idaho's White Clouds, Sawtooths, Seven Devils, and Bitterroot Mountains. The Selkirk Range in Northern Idaho also plays host to mountain goats. Mountain goats are the largest mammals that live in their high-mountain habitats. They usually stay above the tree line and are found at elevations of 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) or even higher.

Mountain goat sketch

Mountain goats are native to North America. Their scientific name is oreamnos americanus, which actually means "a mountain lamb belonging to America." Mountain goats are not really goats at all but are actually members of the antelope family.

Mountain goats are about three and a half feet tall at the shoulder and weigh between 150 and 220 pounds, or about the same weight as a grown man.

Rocky Mountain Goat
Image courtesy of Eric Johnson

It can be difficult to tell the difference between males and females unless you're a keen observer of their behavior. The males, known as billies, are slightly larger than the females, called nannies. Baby mountain goats are called kids. The billies tend to spend a lot of time alone, while nannies live in small groups with the kids.

Here are some characteristics shared by both males and females.

  • Both have slender black horns.
  • Both grow "beards" on their chins as they grow older.
  • Both have large, powerful shoulders that help them climb and paw at the ground for food.

A group of mountain goats is called a band. The number in a band will change frequently. A healthy population of goats will have goats of all ages. Sometimes billies will form their own band.


Mountain Goat horns

Mountain goats have slender, pointed horns that extend up and away from their long, narrow faces. Goat horns grow continuously and are never shed, unlike the antlers of elk, deer, and moose.

A mountain goat's horns tell us the age of a goat similar to the way the rings of a tree or the scales of a fish do. Seasonal rings form on a goat's horns each year. The horns of a mountain goat will have one less ring than its age. So, the horn of a goat that is two years old will have one ring, a three-year-old will have two rings, and so on. Females have a big curve at the tip of their horns while males have a slow curve along the entire length.

A Goat's Coat

Mountain Goat, Enchantments Basin
Image courtesy of Adam Schneider

Mountain goats don't have to worry about the cold. During the winter two layers of fur keep them warm. The fur close to their bodies is like the soft wool of a sheep; it provides a base layer of insulation. Long thick hairs, called guard hairs, cover over the woolly fur. Guard hairs protect the goat's body from wind, rain, and snow. These features help the goat handle the bitter cold weather of the mountainous places they call home.

By late spring, mountain goats start to shed their winter coats. Their heavy fur comes off in chunks, making them look shaggy. They will rub against bushes and trees leaving behind chunks of fluffy balls of fur.

On Their Toes

hat point goat
Image courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife

The hoof on each foot of a mountain goat has a hard outer shell and a rubbery, concave footpad which acts like a suction cup when weight is applied. Goat toes spread when they step. This feature helps goats get around in the mountain environment with ease and agility. The goat's foot design gives the track a square shape with a V in front. They tend to drag their feet, creating a trough between prints. This is especially obvious when they leave tracks in the snow.

Short, sturdy legs and a heavy-set body also aid goats in agility and balance. Mountain goats have been known to leap 10 feet from one ledge to another and turn around in spaces that are only inches wide. Mountain goats can also pull themselves up from ledge to ledge with just their front feet. One false step in this terrain can mean a broken leg or even death, so sure footing is a must.

Mountain Goat Habitat

Mountain goat walking on rocky hillside

A mountain goat's choice of habitat makes it especially unique. A goat lives in locations where many other big game animals cannot survive. Not only do goats live in what we would consider a hostile environment, but they stay there year-round.

Unlike other animals that migrate to lower land or hibernate to survive in the winter, mountain goats do not leave their "comfortable" homes. They may travel downhill a bit to get to areas with warmer temperatures. They also prefer south-facing slopes in the winter. Warmer temperatures in these areas mean less snowfall and more melting of the snow. Food is easier to find in these warmer areas as well.

Survival and Aging

Mountain goat Yellowstone
Image courtesy of Yellowstone National Park

Although goats usually don't have to worry about the cold, conserving energy in the winter is important for goats. Repeated disturbances can stress animals and lower their chances of survival. For this reason, mountain goats should be viewed from a distance.

A goat's lifespan is about 11 years. Some old mountain goats will starve to death because their teeth wear down and they are no longer able to chew their food. Injuries from falling are more common as mountain goats get older, too.

Dinner Time

The eating habits of mountain goats vary throughout the year. Their diet is made up mainly of grasses, woody plants, mosses, lichen, and other vegetation. The goats also seem to be drawn to salt licks, although there is no evidence that salt is a required mineral for them; they just really seem to like the taste!


Mountain goat making the jump on Mount Aeneas

Mountain goats do not have a lot of predators. They live in areas that make it difficult for any predators to go chasing them up a steep cliff. The most common predator is the mountain lion. Golden eagles will occasionally snatch up a kid. Some people hunt mountain goats for their meat and for trophies. But really, as long as habitat is plentiful, the majority of mountain goats will survive. They are more likely to suffer death due to falls, accidents, avalanches, and sometimes lack of food.

The Order of Goats

Mountain Goats on Mount Evans Colorado

Each mountain goat has a rank. Rank determines who gets the best sleeping and feeding spots and who gets to use the salt licks first. Usually, the larger nannies are at the top of the ranking order. The kids rank the same as their mothers. If a billy goat happens to be around, he ranks the lowest of all, except during mating season.

Family Life

Mountain goats on Sepulcher Mountain
Image courtesy of Yellowstone National Park

Mating season takes place in late November and early December. Billies will follow the nannies for up to a month and are so busy finding the right nanny that they lose interest in food. If two billies are interested in one nanny, the two will fight. The fighting isn't done head to head like elk will fight. The mountain goat tends to fight head to side. They run at one another's sides or flanks with their horns. Thick skin in this area protects the goats from serious damage, at least most of the time.

Mother Mountain Goat and her kid in Jasper National Park

Only about half of the nannies in a band will give birth. They usually leave the herd a short time before giving birth. Most commonly a nanny will have one kid at a time. Occasionally twins are born. Birth takes place in the spring when there is plenty to eat and the weather isn't too cold.

Kids can stand up and walk soon after birth and grow quickly. Although a kid's first taste of food comes from drinking their mother's milk, they begin eating plants in just a few days. These plants become their entire diet after about one month.

Mother Mountain Goat and her kid in Jasper National Park

The nannies teach their kids all they need to know to live in the mountain habitat. The kids learn from each other as well. They play by pushing and wrestling. Sometimes the kids will play "king of the hill," where they try to push each other off a high rock. Once they grow horns they make less contact with one another, probably to avoid injuries.

Kids leave their mothers when they are about one year old. The first and second years of life are the most difficult for a young goat. Studies have shown a heavy loss of young during this time.