Q. What was up with that killer mountain goat in Olympic National Park?
A. Blame a lethal combination of habituation to humans, a thirst for urine (we'll explain), and the rut.
On October 17, a 63-year-old Port Angeles, Washington, resident named Robert Boardman was hiking with his wife and a female friend on the Klahhane Ridge Trail, a popular alpine route about two miles from the Hurricane Ridge Visitor Center in Olympic National Park. They'd stopped for lunch when a large male mountain goat approached, looking aggressive. The hikers retreated down the trail but the goat followed, menacing them for 45 minutes. Finally Boardman held off the billy while his wife and friend fled, but the goat charged and gored his thigh, which began gushing blood, possibly from a punctured femoral artery. When the women returned with nearby hikers, the goat stood over Boardman as he bled, retreating only when an off-duty park naturalist shook a big silver safety blanket at the animal. Boardman died after a helicopter evacuation; the blood-smeared goat was shot by rangers later that day.
Since this is the only known death by mountain goat in U.S. history, the attack is unusually puzzling. "Goats are normally very frightened of humans," says Steeve Cote, a wildlife biologist who studies alpine ungulates in the Canadian Rockies. Most mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus) won't let Cote creep closer than within 300 yards before resorting to their favorite defense: running up steep, rocky slopes. But mountain goats aren't timid like rabbits. When cornered by a cougar, wolf, or bear, these woolly and burly specimens, which can weigh more than 300 pounds, brandish their knifelike horns, two bone cores wrapped in sheaths of keratin that make for deadly weapons.
All that said, the main thing to understand about the killer goat is that he shouldn't have been in Olympic to begin with. The park's 300-odd goats aren't native to the area; their ancestors first arrived back in the 1920s, when local sportsmen imported 11 from Canada and Alaska. Hunting was banned when the park was established, in 1938, and with few predators to worry about—there are no wolves, and deer are much easier prey for cougars—that original population had exploded to 1,175 by the early 1980s. For years the Park Service has tried to figure out a solution, proposing a program of eradication in the 1990s, but animal-rights activists raised a fuss, and the overpopulation issue was quietly shelved.
The goats have gotten used to humans because they've found that (1) we won't hurt them and (2) we produce two things they crave: urine and sweat. Like most mammals, mountain goats need salt, and they don't get a lot in their vegetarian diet. In remote areas, they'll meet the need by licking rocks. But along heavily traveled trails, they learn that humans leave behind deliciously salty puddles. Mountain climbers have a phrase for it: "hustling a pee."
"I've had clients take a leak and have a goat come at them at a run, hoping to clean something up," says Willi Prittie, a veteran guide who grew up climbing in the Olympic Range. "It kinda freaks 'em out." Other climbers report goats chewing up boot liners and pole grips to get at dried sweat.
It's unknown whether the goat that killed Boardman was seeking salt or a food handout or was just plain angry. The necropsy showed the animal was a healthy male in rut, which might explain his aggro behavior. "But then again," says lead park biologist Patti Happe, "he'd been aggressive out of rut, too." Last summer, in fact, rangers posted a temporary trailhead warning about a belligerent goat. Mike Clancy, another hiker from nearby Port Angeles, encountered the killer on Klahhane Ridge four days before Boardman did. "He was as big as any black bear I've seen," Clancy says, "and he stared us down in the middle of the trail." Clancy and his wife, Kandy, threw chunks of shale at the goat, which just seemed to make him madder. "He made a snorting sound and started digging at the ground," he says, but the goat allowed them to retreat.
Though goat attacks aren't likely to become routine, humans should be prepared. According to University of Calgary biologist Valerius Geist, author of the forthcoming book Living on the Edge: The Mountain Goat's World, hikers should never confuse pee hustling with tameness. Those horns are stilettos, says Geist, their sole purpose to puncture another body. When a mountain goat faces down a perceived predator, he says, there's one rule of thumb: "Do not bet on the predator."