White Beasts of the Rocky Ledges.
Mountain Goats were introduced in Eastern Idaho for sport hunting between 1969-1971. Since then, a healthy population has settled onto the cliffs and high country along the Snake River near Alpine Junction. During the winter months, some of the Goats move off the high cliffs and closer to Highway 89/191, and sometimes right onto the road.
Overview: Mountain Goats inhabit the rocky terrain north of the Snake River all year and are occasionally visible at any time of the year. A few people report seeing the young sheep during the summer and apparently a few move relatively low on the hillsides. There were other reports of people seeing them during the October government shutdown in 2013. Still, it is uncommon to see them until winter. In most previous years, the best time to see them was in February, however, in 2013 they appeared near the roads in December and January. Snow pack is probably the biggest determining factor on how soon they come down and when they quit coming down. They goats are grazers, moving around the slopes in search of exposed grass, shrubs, roots and leaves. They often follow avalanche paths down to the road. As the sun bakes the south facing slopes, more open faces appear. At some point, enough open areas are available for them up high they quit coming down. Depending on the year, some can be seen in March and April.
February 11, 2014 Update: For some reason, the Mountain Goats are not as common in the canyon this year. I’ve been down a few times so far this month and got skunked twice and got only mediocre shots of them for a few minutes on another trip. I had to wait until late in the day for them to come down, too. I’ve spoken with a few other photographers having similar experiences. Maybe it will pick up, but I am hesitant to suggest you’ll have a great chance of seeing them right now. Check back on this page. If things pick back up to normal, I’ll make that note.
Getting There: (Click the thumbnail to the left to see a much larger map) From Jackson, go south to Hoback Junction and across the Hoback Bridge—currently under construction. Once you cross the bridge, you’ll be following the Snake River all the way. About 25 miles south of Hoback Junction, the canyon opens up into the Alpine Junction area. I refer to this spot as the “Mouth of the Canyon”. There’s a motel and quite a few businesses within the next mile. The larger map below will show the three turnouts near the mouth of the canyon where Mountain Goats are most commonly seen. The total distance from Jackson is around 35 miles. I typically drive about 85-90 miles on a trip down there, allowing for driving up and down the canyon looking for them. The small town of Alpine has a grocery store, a bar, several restaurants and a few gas stations. It is a winter haven for snowmobilers with access to the Gray’s River. An elk refuge is also located a couple of miles south of Alpine.
WYDOT Travel Information WEB CAM at Alpine Junction: If you’d like to see the weather conditions at Alpine Junction, click the link. Weather Channel Info at Alpine Junction.
Turnouts and Viewing Areas: (Click this image to see it larger) There are three safe turnouts long the State Highway. The orange areas indicate areas where Mountain Goats are most commonly seen. (Map via The Photographer’s Ephemeris) Nov. 2015 addition: The first turnout on the left is at the mouth of the canyon. Alpine Junction is roughly a mile west of there.
The Mountain Goat’s Domain: On a trip down on January 24, 2014 I pulled over and took this shot. I was about 8 miles up the canyon looking back towards the West. We’ve had a couple more snow storms since that shot.
Nanny and Kid: Mountain Goats are good “posers”. They’ll often find a rock or outcropping, stand on it, and survey the area before resuming their feeding.
I spent some time at the mouth of the Canyon last year on 24 of the 28 days of February last year. They were down at least for a while on most of those days, but it is definitely possible to get skunked altogether. There are several herds in the two or three miles near the mouth of the canyon, some of which move up and down the canyon during the week.
I counted at least 60 Mountain Goats on a couple of different occasions last year, but there has to be a lot more. Game Rangers only seem to be able to “guestimate”, though I’ve seen more radio collars on some of the Nannies this year. I have to assume someone is studying them.
I kept hoping to figure out any sort of pattern for their appearance. I had the most luck seeing them between 10:30 am and 3:00 pm or 3:30 pm. I heard stories of people seeing them near the road at sunrise and also close to sunset. Tracks in the snow sometimes confirmed those stories. I drove down early one morning to find them already finished grazing and beginning to head up the hillside. I drove down early quite a few days in a row afterwards and didn’t see them down that early again. After a while, I quit going early. Again, the pattern seemed to be there wasn’t a pattern!
After observing for several years, it becomes apparent they stay off the steepest ledges when snow is thick. In earlier years, more of the herds started coming down to the roads after the first avalanches cleared a better path for them and exposing fresh grass. In early February of 2014, the snow pack in that area is above what I would consider “normal”, with few open patches on the mountainsides.
The best suggestion I can offer is to plan on being down there for at least three hours. If they are not down when you get there, don’t immediately turn around and head back home. Have lunch in Alpine or check out the Elk on the refuge a few miles south of Alpine. Take a nap or read a paper, but give them a chance if you are down there in February. While a few Mountain Goats have been spotted six or seven miles up the Canyon on occasions, most of the activity and sightings are usually within the first two miles of the mouth of the canyon.
Male Mountain Goats are called Billies. Females are called Nannies, and the young ones are called Kids. Their winter fur is absolutely stunning, especially if blowing in the wind. I’ve never seen one attack a human, though I read reports of one killing a human in Glacier. They will often graze up to you if you are still, yet will head up hill if you approach them directly or too fast. But remember, these are unpredictable wild animals! Give them all the respect and distance they deserve!
It might occur to a visitor or photographer to climb the hillside for a better angle or view. All I can say is don’t waste your time. They will not let you get higher than them. So, just wait and let them come to you.
Billy: The horns on a Billy are thicker at the base and closer together as a result, as seen above. The horns on the Nannies are about the same length, but are usually about a third thinner. Kids will always be close to the Nanny, so it becomes clear which ones are Nannies just by association. Billies tend to stay higher and typically don’t come all the way to the road. Billies might be a tiny bit larger, but that’s only a guess based on observation. They will occasionally display lingering rut behavior by sniffing a Nanny, but by February, most of the rut is over.
Roads and Conditions in the Canyon:
I can’t stress this issue any stronger…the road down the Snake River Canyon is a Wyoming State Highway and should not be confused with a road in either of our National Parks. Truckers are zipping along with fully loaded semis and gas tankers—along with snowmobilers and with heavy trailers and impatient travelers.
The Highway patrol officers are not tolerant of anyone parking or stopping with any parts of their wheels inside the fog lines at any time. The County Sherriff down there runs off all people parked on the side of the roads and not in one of the pullouts. Depending on the weather conditions, all of the officials, including the Wyoming Game and Fish Ranger, can tell you to get off the road altogether.
Snow plow drivers must plow the highway after snow storms. They usually raise their blades as they approach viewers and photographers, but our presence adds danger and stress to an already dangerous and stressful task. In the image(s) above, I was parked off the side of the road as far as I could. The snow plow driver plastered my truck. They usually raise their blades if a photographer is standing alongside the road.
After being down there so many times over the past four or five years, I can suggest I have “seen it all”. Probably not, I guess! Anyway, it is not uncommon to see people stop right in the middle of the highway. I’ve seen kids (human kids) run right at the goats and chase them up the hill. I’ve seen people pull over, then leave their doors open into the travel lanes of the highway. I’ve seen the goats stop traffic by actually going out onto the road to lick the salt and chemicals. With all of the above, there are times it actually “feels dangerous” to be on the side of the road with a tripod set up. Again, this is NOT a National Park.
Game Rangers are now shooting fireworks at them to run them up the hillsides before they reach the road. In the shot above, the Ranger was using a popping whip to run them up the hillside.
Canyon Weather: The weather at the mouth of the canyon during the winter months can be brutal. The Goat’s thick fur protects them from it, but conditions can be difficult for a tourist or photographer. Calm, sunny days are usually no problem at all. But, if it is overcast and windy, there just isn’t enough clothing to keep you warm! The “canyon effect” can compress and multiply the wind and windchill. Luckily, you can jump back into your warm vehicle since it will likely be close by. On snowy days, flakes can fill the front of your lenses. On warmer days, passing trucks can spray you and your equipment as they zip by. I don’t write this to discourage you from going there, but more to help you be prepared for the possibilities and realities. I like to go down when the weather is the “worst” because there is always a chance of unique and dramatic shots others won’t get.
Elbow: If you look at the first map, you’ll notice how the road travels essentially south out of Hoback Junction, then takes a sharp turn towards the West towards Alpine. That turn is often called “Elbow Bend”. My friend, Daryl Hunter lives on the Idaho side of the Mountains and travels that road regularly. He points out the “weather bands” that meet at Elbow Bend. Often the weather we are having in Jackson is no indication of what is happening in the other band, and visa-versa.
The Photographic Challenge:
Most people will be tickled pink to see their first Mountain Goats. It is an uncommon sight for almost all of us! If you were to go down regularly, you’d eventually get enough shots of them feeding in the grass alongside the roads, and you’d probably get quite a few face shots and full frame shots to last a lifetime. The challenge after the feeding shots is to get shots of them in their elements—on the rock, moving across the ridges, or doing something showing their behavior.
You just never know when one of the Mountain Goats will do something spectacular! This Nanny walked up to this crevice and jumped it without any hesitation. Before this shot, and since then, I’ve seen lots of them get to the same spot, hesitate and move up or down the mountain to make an easier crossing. Lastly, for this blog page, I posted mostly horizontal aspect ratio images. I like to photograph Moutain Goats in the portrait aspect to be able to include some of the rocks above and below them.
My Gear: For the earlier years, I used a Nikon D300 body and a 200-400mm lens. When I bought my D4, I switched to it for all the obvious reasons. A year ago, I added a Nikon D800 and began using for most of my Goat shots. I have it paired with the 200-400mm zoom lens on the tripod. I often attach a 70-200mm lens to the D4 and carry it around my neck. That gives me options to capture a much wider scene if I need it. Most Mountain Goat shots are slow to develop, so the slower frame rate of the D800 is usually adequate.
Post Processing Notes: There is a power line running the entire length of the Snake River Canyon, along with survey stakes, chain link rock retainers, signs, and posts scattered around the roadsides. I always try to recompose or move around to avoid as much of it as I can, but it is not uncommon to have one of the elements in a photo I like. Without having complete control of the area, I never have a problem removing those distractions in Photoshop or Lightroom.
Mountain Goats in Grand Teton National Park: A few Mountain Goats have migrated into Grand Teton National Park. The officials there are aware of them and are doing their normal “studies” and are taking public comments on how to deal with the issue. Besides not being native to the region, they are reported carrying diseases that are harmful to the native population of Bighorn Sheep in the northern end of the park. You can read more about the issue in this Missoulian article: Mountain goats tiptoe into fragile sheep country in northwest Wyoming
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