A couple of times in February and once in March, Rebecca Mowry had a chance to see the Bitterroot Mountains in a way only a handful before her have ever experienced.
From the inside of a helicopter, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist explored 22 canyons from Trapper Peak to Carlton Ridge while searching for signs of mountain goats.
“It’s a fun survey to do,” Mowry said. “You get to see a lot of beautiful country, but it’s treacherous too. You’re right next to the cliffs, with no good places to land if something goes wrong.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists have taken to the air to see how mountain goat populations are faring in the Bitterroot numerous times over the years.
It’s always a challenge getting a good count on animals that are surprisingly difficult to spot against the gray cliff walls.
“We’ve found that it works best when you have some fresh snow,” Mowry said. “You can see their tracks and then follow them until you spot them. You wouldn’t think that you would want any snow to find them, but the fact is they are really hard to see against a solid background in the rocks.”
There wasn’t an abundance of fresh snow this winter.
Even with that challenge, Mowry found mountain goats in all but seven of the canyons she explored.
“Most of the goats we saw were in the southern end,” she said.
Mowry counted a total of 63 goats over the two days in February. She found the bulk of the population between Trapper Peak and Blodgett Canyon.
In canyons north of Blodgett, she only found 17 goats and many of those were off by themselves.
Mowry found the largest concentration of mountain goats in the Blodgett Canyon, where she counted 13.
While those population numbers mark quite a drop from 1989, when biologists found 267 goats in the same drainages, the numbers have remained relatively stable over the last few surveys.
It’s hard to know exactly why mountain goats aren’t doing as well as they once did in the Bitterroot Mountains.
“It is common knowledge that we had a really high hunter harvest years ago,” Mowry said. “In 2005, we issued 12 permits. I think way back in the day, we were issuing even more than that.”
In 2012, the permit numbers were down to two.
Warming temperatures may also be impacting their food source or how they move between summer and winter ranges, she said.
“They reproduce slowly,” Mowry said. “They possibly have hit a threshold that they can’t quite get over.”
Mowry said the current harvest is considered sustainable at the present population levels.
“We’re not worried about further hurting the population,” she said.
The news for bighorn sheep in portions of the Bitterroot is more encouraging.
In the Painted Rocks area, Mowry counted 88 bighorns during a recent survey.
“That’s the highest number that we have seen since 2006,” she said. “Most of what we found were ewes and lambs.”
In the East Fork, Mowry was only able to find about half of what was counted last year, but that may have been due to survey conditions at the time.
“We may try to resurvey that later this year,” she said.
The bighorn herd in the Skalkaho-Sleeping Child area appears to be slowly recovering from a major die-off in 2012.
“We only found 35, which is kind of what we were expecting,” she said. “It’s not horrible, but it’s definitely lower than what it used to be.”