Billy Got Gruff

The deadliest creature in the Olympics is a snowy-white vegetarian.

By Eric Scigliano November 15, 2010 Published in the December 2010 issue of Seattle Met

FOR THOUSANDS OF hikers enjoying Olympic Mountain vistas, the 300 or so mountain goats were scenic grace notes and occasional nuisances. Sure, they’d gotten bolder around humans, sniffing around for food or salt traces and sometimes blocking trails. But who ever worried about killer goats?

Then, on October 16 near Hurricane Ridge, one of those cute caprids stabbed hiker Robert H. Boardman in the thigh and stood over him, fending off rescuers, while he bled to death.

The culprit had a rap sheet; other hikers had reported that the goat blocked trails and challenged interlopers. But humans were accessories to the crime. Mountain goats weren’t native to the Olympics; game officials introduced them in the 1920s to give hunters another quarry. At the same time, the state tried to exterminate the peninsula’s wolves and cougars—two carnivores that occasionally prey on goats and commonly inspire much more fear in people.

Olympic wolves are still MIA; when Olympic National Park considered a proposal to reintroduce them in the 1990s, locals shouted down the idea. The cougars held on, but have been implicated in just one attack, on an illegal mountain biker who suffered minor injuries in the Elwha Valley. Elk and black bears, which grow even larger than goats and are more numerous, aren’t known to have ever harmed anyone in the park, though some bears have been dispatched for camp raiding.

But now the goats, introduced as prey, are turning the tables. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife research scientist Clifford Rice, who has studied mountain goats, knows of no other humans killed by them anywhere. But the attack on Boardman wasn’t entirely unprecedented. After the news broke, another hiker reported having been gored in the thigh on Mount Ellinor in 1999. Rice recalls one hiker in the Cascades who held her hand out to a curious goat, which got alarmed and jabbed it.

Such encounters seem inevitable, considering how humans have cozied up to the goats and how goats deal with each other. “Everything looks peaceful there on the scenic mountains,” says Rice, “but mountain goats are not a peaceful society.” One well-known study found that nannies act much more aggressively toward each other than females in other ungulate species. During mating season (late October and November), the 200- to 300-pound billies duke it out by standing side-to-side and slashing each other with stiletto-sharp, scimitar-shaped horns. Their flanks have “dermal armor”—superthick skin—to take the blows. Hikers’ thighs don’t.

One more thing: Urine traces draw critters in the salt-starved mountains, so don’t pee on the trail. If a goat does approach, rangers advise shouting, waving, throwing rocks, and generally trying to scare it off. Which seems to be just what Bob Boardman did.

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