Sheep and Goats


THE Rocky Mountain goat is rarely seen on its native range except by big-game hunters. This is not because the goat is wary, for it is in fact a foolishly curious and incautious beast, but because it lives high on the peaks of the Rockies, where only the most ardent sportsman will climb: it customarily leaves its mountains only as an inanimate trophy. Within the last few years, however, the Montana Fish and Game Department has succeeded in capturing a number of goats alive. These are probably the first goats to be trapped in this way. At any rate, a standing bounty of twenty-five dollars a head for live goats had never previously been claimed.

The goats and some bighorn sheep were taken as part of Montana’s big-game restoration program. Montana authorities fear that these once abundant animals will be exterminated unless they are protected; for by 1940, hunters had reduced the state’s goat population to a mere 5231 head, and of the innumerable bighorn observed by early travelers, only 1304 remained. In the following year, the Montana Fish and Game Department, with assistance provided through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, embarked on a plan of transplantation from regions in which the animals are still numerous to others in which they are languishing or already nonexistent.

The first step in this novel program was to catch the sheep and the goats. Robert F. Cooney, director of the Wildlife Restoration Division of the Fish and Game Department, and Ray C. Gibler, a seasoned mountain man and professional guide who was then field man for the department, had no tried technique to use in trapping the animals. But their ingenuity proved enough.

The first goats were trapped about fifty miles south of Glacier National Park, high on the divide between the north and south forks of Deep Creek, where a band of about one hundred animals was known to range. Cooney and Gibler built, a pen on the ridge, eleven feet high, twenty feet wide, and thirty-six feet long, constructing it of heavy, unclimbable wire reinforced with posts and poles. They swung a drop gate at either end.

The question of bait was no problem, for Cooney and Gibler knew how the Rocky Mountain herbivorous animals wear paths to mineral licks. They put salt inside the pen — fifty pounds of block salt broken into fragments. Then, leaving both gates open, on the assumption that visitors would be less wary in entering if they saw a means of exit, the men went back to town.

After a week they returned, to find eight goats actually inside the pen. The remainder of a band of about thirty-one were in the neighborhood.

The men closed the back gate of the pen and ran a trip wire from the front gate to a point three hundred yards away.

After another week Cooney and Gibler came back again. They were disappointed to find the pen empty, but they settled down in their hiding place to wait. As the chill afternoon crawled along, two goats appeared and browsed interminably about the trap. At last they went in, and were soon followed by a nanny and her last year’s kid. Cooney jerked the wire.

The men watched intently, wondering whether the goats would try to jump the fence or climb the wire, or whether they would rush the sides.

When the gate banged shut, the startled animals huddled together. Then they began to run. But they didn’t hit the sides of the pen and they didn’t try to climb the fence or leap it. They just dashed about.

With their catch secure, the men debated procedure. In the absence of experience, original or secondhand, they did not know what to expect from a caged goat. They did know that goats’ horns are almost needle-pointed. Finally Gibler, an old hand with a lariat, climbed the fence, perched on the top, and roped the animals from there.

The goats were defiant but didn’t charge; and with later catches Gibler went inside the pen and roped from the ground. The goats struggled fiercely until they were thrown, but once prostrate they gave up and lay limp and apparently philosophical. The hunters learned, however, to beware of swift and unexpected flirts of the goats’ heads, which could drive a horn deep into flesh.

At one town where the transfer truck and its load of crated goats stopped on the way to the planting grounds, a deputy game warden, scornful of warnings, tried to put his hand on the head of a yearling billy. He got a spike horn through his palm.

When weather and trails permitted, the animals were trucked from trapping place to planting ground. At other times they were taken out on pack horses, in crates especially constructed. On their new range the goats followed an identical and comic course. For a long moment after each animal had been taken from its crate, thrown, and relieved of restraining ropes, it would lie possum-like, then warily lift its head to appraise the situation, then abruptly scramble up and lumber off.

Mountain sheep were caught in the same manner. Unlike the goats, they showed no signs of fight, but only a wild, pathetic terror. When they couldn’t be put directly into the pickup truck the sheep were travoised out by horse in the Indian fashion — that is, the animals were lashed to two parallel poles, the top ends of which were fitted at the sides of the horse like shafts, while the bottom ends trailed on the ground. This procedure was necessary because no crate small enough for a pack horse was big enough for a male sheep with its tremendous roll of horn. A ram’s head sometimes weighs as much as forty pounds, and the horns may measure nineteen inches around at the base.

Partly because of these spectacular ornaments, the bighorn have waged a losing battle for survival. Big-game hunters slaughtered thousands of them, and when the sheep retreated to higher grazing grounds, disease and the inbreeding resulting from sequestration continued the process. The bighorn is regarded as the greatest big-game problem in the country, for, despite the anxious efforts of conservationists, the sheep herds barely manage to hold their own. There is one exception to this condition, the Tarryall band of bighorn in Colorado, which, after reaching the vanishing point of seven animals in 1923, somehow accomplished an about-face and now numbers more than four hundred head.

Montana officials decided to combat inbreeding among the bighorn by catching and transferring rams from band to band. For example, two rams from the Sun River drainage were trapped and moved to Gallatin Canyon, and one trapped in the Gallatin was trucked to Sun River.

In an attempt to establish a new band of bighorn, fourteen sheep were moved from Sun River to the Gates of the Mountains, an area near Helena named by Lewis and Clark. The bighorn had presumably died out entirely there, the last report of a once big band having been made during the severe winter of 1919-1920.

It is too early, of course, to pass judgment on all the aspects of Montana’s wildlife transplantings, but officials are hopeful that the number of mountain sheep and goats really will increase. During the short time that the project was in operation before war curtailed the work, thirty-eight goats and seventeen sheep had been caught and moved from one part of the state to another. Officials of the Wildlife Restoration Division know that in 1943 there were thirty-three goats, including eight kids, in the Crazy Mountains, where twenty-two were planted in 1941 and 1942, and that the bighorn in the Gates of the Mountains are maintaining themselves, at the very least. Montana officials are already making plans for post-war multiplication of the sheep and the goats.