Study: Avalanches Significantly Impact Mountain Goat Populations

Mountain goats have a natural threat you might not expect: avalanches. According to a recent study published in the journal Communications Biology, many mountain goats fall prey to snow avalanches each year. 

Researchers have assumed this was the case but until this study, none had looked systematically at the impact of avalanches on mountain goat populations. The lack of research resulted from the remote locations mountain goats inhabit and because scientists often do field research on the species in the mild summer months—when avalanches are not a serious concern. 

The recent study was conducted over almost two decades on coastal Alaskan mountain goats. During that span, Alaska Department of Fish and Game field staff helped researchers collar 421 mountain goats. Whenever one of the radio collars indicated a mortality signal, lead author Kevin White responded to the scene to determine the cause of mortality; avalanches were common factors. 

“Avalanche mortality patterns scaled up to reveal population-level implications,” wrote the authors. “The proportion of the population that died from avalanches averaged 8 percent annually over the study … Three populations had at least one year where more than 15 percent of the population died in avalanches.”

Additionally, in one region of the study, 65 percent of all mountain goat mortalities were caused by avalanches. The avalanches didn’t take out only young, inexperienced goats, either; sixty-one percent of avalanche mortalities were “prime-aged” individuals between 4 and 9 years old. Avalanche mortalities peaked during variable snow conditions both early in the winter and during the spring melt off.  

“It’s pretty impressive [that the researchers] were finding collars under avalanche debris,” Montana State University wildlife geneticist Elizabeth Flesch, who was not involved in the study, told The New York Times. Flesch also noted that the impact on adult females is “a really big deal.” 

Experts say that this research is particularly important today given the potential impact of climate change on snowpack conditions in Alaska and beyond, which will likely increase the frequency of extreme winter precipitation and rain-on-snow events—and avalanches.

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“Climate change impacts on snow characteristics will loom large in the future of mountain ungulates,” wrote the study’s authors. “The high rates of avalanche mortality we document might be widespread among mountain wildlife, and if so, carry important cultural and ecological implications.”

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