August 12, 2004 11:00 pm
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN: Mountain goats have prospered in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City since the ODFW released 21 goats along Pine Creek between 1983 and 1986.  (Wescom Wire Photo courtesy ODFW).
CATCH ME IF YOU CAN: Mountain goats have prospered in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City since the ODFW released 21 goats along Pine Creek between 1983 and 1986. (Wescom Wire Photo courtesy ODFW).

By Jayson Jacoby

For The Observer

Baker County beef sizzles on grills across the West, and our potatoes are chopped into famously tasty french fries.

But you can't order the county's newest exports from any restaurant's menu.

You can, however, watch them stroll with carefree confidence across the nearly sheer slopes of Eastern Oregon's highest peaks.

They're mountain goats.

And they have prospered since the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife released the first bunch in the Elkhorn Mountains west of Baker City in 1983.

Between 1983 and 1986, ODFW captured 21 goats in Idaho, Alaska and Washington, then set them loose along Pine Creek, about 12 miles from town.

Today the Elkhorn goat population totals about 150, said George Keister, district wildlife biologist at ODFW's Baker City office.

The goats have reproduced with such alacrity, in fact, that ODFW officials no longer drive hundreds of miles to get animals for Oregon's goatless mountains.

Now they just go to the Elkhorns.

Since 2000, ODFW has trapped 66 goats at Goodrich Lake, Baker City's drinking water reservoir at the foot of Elkhorn Peak.

Biologists trucked those goats to four places: Hat Point, in the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area east of Joseph; Summit Point, in the Wallowa Mountains northwest of Halfway; Steamboat Creek, just upstream from Hells Canyon Dam; and Eagle Creek north of Richland.

Keister said ODFW intends to trap goats at Goodrich Lake every year as long as the Elkhorn herd continues to multiply.

Elkhorns ideal for trapping

It's an ideal spot for trapping, at least compared to the Wallowas, where most goats roam miles from the nearest road, Keister said.

Trappers can drive their pickup trucks right to Goodrich Lake, and there's a nice flat meadow in which to set up the net, he said.

The road to the lake is closed to the public, however, to protect the city's drinking-water supply.

"There's still plenty of habitat in the Wallowas that doesn't have goats," Keister said.

Nor have the goats, despite their reproductive achievements, swarmed all over the Elkhorns.

Keister said the vast majority of goats tend to congregate in the southern end of the Elkhorns, around four places: Pine Creek, where their ancestors first stepped, and at Twin Lakes, Rock Creek Butte and Goodrich Lake.

Hikers and campers also have seen goats at Killamacue and Summit lakes in the Central Elkhorns, and at Van Patten Lake and on Gunsight Mountain, both at the north end of the range near Anthony Lakes.

Keister said the fire lookout who spends the summer atop Mount Ireland, several miles west of the Elkhorns' spine, also reports that goats frequently share his summit.

Keister said he doesn't know why goats haven't colonized the north end of the Elkhorns as densely as they have the south. He expects that they will, though, if ever their annual population growth outpaces the trapping rate.

A goat or two from the Elkhorns occasionally strays south and west to the Greenhorn Mountains near Granite, and to the Strawberrys south of Prairie City, Keister said. He isn't convinced, though, that the animals are breeding in those mountains.

Each of those three mountain ranges, along with the Wallowas, contains thousands of acres of the precipitous terrain that goats prefer.

It is amid these shrines to acrophobia that the goats most effectively wield the weapon that protects them from cougars and other predators: agility.

Few animals dare venture onto the cliffs where the goats gambol with confidence.

Gluttonous goats

Mountain goats are suckers for salt.

So insatiable is their appetite for the stuff, in fact, that 12 goats that used to live in the Elkhorn Mountains now roam the Wallowas, about 40 miles away.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, with help from several volunteers, trapped those goats last month at Goodrich Lake, about 10 miles northwest of Baker City.

ODFW released the goats along Eagle Creek, north of Richland.

To entice the goats, officials placed a salt block beneath a suspended net. The net was set up a week before trapping started, so goats could get used to seeing the unnatural contraption.

On the first day of trapping, the net snared eight goats by mid-morning.

Later in the week, though, a cougar complicated the trappers' task when it killed a yearling goat and scared off about two dozen others, ODFW biologist George Keister said.

Two days later, the trappers nabbed two goats, and a day after that they caught another pair.

The Baker County chapter of the Oregon Hunters Association donated $500 to defray trapping costs, and several chapter members helped ODFW officials corral the goats — a potentially perilous task, given that both billies and nannies sport a pair of sharp horns.

Six other chapters contributed a combined $2,200, said Charlie Brinton, president of Baker County chapter.

ODFW used the donations to buy radio-tracking collars that were fitted to goats, and to build the wooden boxes in which the goats rode to their new home at Eagle Creek. Inmates at the Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City built the boxes.