Mountain Goat Hunting

The last time Bob Inman invited me on an adventure, I left my house in Ennis, Mont., at 4:30 a.m. and didn't get home until the next day at the same time. Inman is a wolverine biologist who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society and that time we'd tracked a female wolverine to her den and unsuccessfully attempted to sedate and implant a transceiver in her kit. We'd trudged out of the mountains in the dark, beaten and bruised. The memory of that trip was on my mind when, in October, Inman announced he'd drawn one of Montana's highly coveted mountain goat tags for a unit in southwest Montana's Madison Range, which juts to 11,000 feet in several places and is some of the most fertile grizzly bear habitat in the West. I've hunted goats in Alaska and Washington and I know how brutal and dangerous goat hunts can be. Mountain goats inhabit alpine terrain and are commonly found on the steepest pitches and near-vertical rock faces. With trepidation I said, "Sure, Bob, I'll help you get a goat. But don't send me on a wolverine chase, ok." Inman chuckled and said, "We both have kids now so I'm not going to risk my life." I didn't tell him the obvious: just deciding to hunt goats is taking a calculated risk. Here, with our spike camp set up, Inman and Trent Brown cook a quick meal at 8,000 feet. Snow and goat hunting aren't a good mix so, after hanging our food in a tree a hundred yards from camp, we went to sleep that night wondering what conditions we might find in the morning.
When you hunt in the western mountains and carry camp in on your backs, weight is a huge issue. Inman, Brown and I slept in a three-person tent that should have been rated for two. Still, the tent kept the sleet and snow out and our sleeping bags, rated to minus-twenty, kept us mostly warm through the night.
We woke to fog and snow-flurries in the morning. As we waited for the weather to lift we boiled coffee and made oatmeal and watched native cutthroat trout rise in the small lake near camp.
The view south from camp was not pretty. This is prime goat habitat, but these are not conditions conducive to goat hunting. One slip on these cliffs could be your last. Still, we scanned these peaks, but couldn't spot any goats.
As clouds lifted to the north, Brown and Inman glassed the open, south-facing hillsides above camp.
Shortly, we spotted this billy (a male mountain goat) bedded near the top of a high ridge and our excitement level soared. "That's the one," Inman said. "That goat looks huge. I would be very happy if we could get him."
Just after that comment Inman spotted this goat, another billy, bedded lower on the mountain. "That one looks good, too," Inman said. Just then, some elk moved out of the timber and onto the open, rocky slope. For some reason those elk spooked both goats to their feet and put them on the move.
Here is the herd of elk that spooked the goats. My thoughts quickly moved from goats to the fact that it was still bow season in Montana. Oh, how I would have liked to have gone after that big six-point. "Next year," I told Inman and Brown. "Next year I'm back here with a bow and that bull has my name on it." Brown, an avid bowhunter, squinted at me and said, "If I don't get him first."
As the elk moved up the mountain, so too did the goats. Here's one billy at the crest of the mountain. Both billies soon dropped off the ridge and disappeared from sight. Inman announced, "Those are the goats we're going after today. We'll spend the day finding them." I quickly questioned, "Don't you know the golden rule? You don't shoot goats on the other side of the mountain from camp!" Inman shrugged and said, "Nobody said goat hunting would be easy." Remembering the wolverine debacle I thought, Here we go again.
After watching those goats disappear over the high ridge we started our tromp up the mountain. In several places we had to drop to all fours. Here, Inman negotiates some loose scree.
When hunting goats, even a minor injury could be devastating. A sprained or broken ankle here, in the heart of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area (where helicopters, vehicles, chainsaws, and even bicycles are restricted) could mean a visit from Search and Rescue. As we made our final push for the ridge we reminded each other, one careful step at a time.
On top of the ridge, in heavy wind and blowing ice and snow, Brown and Inman glass for those two billies. Unfortunately, we couldn't locate those goats, but we did see their tracks, which led out of sight, farther down the other side of the mountain.
After dropping off the back side of the mountain Inman spotted a billy, in its bed, about 150 yards away. Unfortunately, a small crest kept Inman from getting a good shot. So the standoff began. And the questions were these: How long would the billy remain bedded? And how long could Inman, Brown and I stay on that exposed snowfield, in the wind, at 10,000 feet?
An hour after spotting the goat Inman, now shaking because of exposure, decides to make a move. Brown is watching the goat, ready to signal Inman if the billy gets out of its bed.
As Inman slips into final position the goat senses something and rises from its bed. Inman, shaking almost uncontrollably manages the crosshairs onto the goat's shoulder and fires.
Goats are notoriously difficult to kill. My father, Fred Thomas, an avid hunter who's killed many goats in southeast Alaska, says the only North American game animal that's more difficult to drop is a grizzly bear. Here, Inman's goat stumbles forward, hit hard, but still on it's legs. The question going through my mind was, "What's on the other side of that ridge?"
Right after the shot Inman and Brown abandoned their backpacks and raced for a spot where the goat was last seen. Inman spotted the goat and was able to place two shots in the animal before it disappeared.
This is a story written in snow. Here, Inman and Brown vainly search for the goat. In the foreground is a trail the goat left after being hit by the first shot. As Inman and Brown looked for the goat they heard a crashing sound, then more crashing and rocks rolling. Soon, it was apparent that the goat fell off a cliff and was rolling toward the bottom of the mountain--on the opposite side from camp!
After searching for a path through the cliffs we were able to reach the goat, which rolled to a stop on a steep, rocky slope. Here, an elated Inman (don't be fooled by his expression) examines his first, hard-earned mountain goat.
Mountain goats are surprisingly rugged animals, built with massive bones and a thick hide. Here, Inman and Brown struggle to place the goat in a position where it can be field dressed and quartered for the pack out. We estimated this goat's weight at 275-to 300 pounds.
This is a memorable image, one that Inman, Brown and I will treasure forever, a snapshot from a time and place where hard work and an adventure spirit paid off. However, I can see that each of us are a bit reserved because we know what rests ahead--a gnarly pack out with heavy loads on our backs while covering incredibly steep, snow-covered terrain.
One final, reflective moment for Inman before the work begins.
A goat's hooves are made for scaling rocky cliffs. They are soft and incredibly grippy.
They say an image is worth a thousand words, but this shot doesn't quite depict how steep and razor-edged this ridge is. While climbing this ridge, with a pack full of goat on my back, I was nervous, thinking I should have increased my life-insurance policy before heading into the Madison Range with Inman.
Because my headlamp didn't work and I didn't have a good idea of how long it might take to get the goat back to camp, I had Brown and Inman fill my pack first. I left them to butcher the rest of the goat and I headed out. Here, with plenty of daylight left, I snapped a self-timed shot to represent the relief I felt to be back in camp. I think the shot also indicates how tired and sore I was from scaling the mountains. Note the goat hoof sticking out of the pack.
From camp I shot this photo of Inman coming off the high ridge with a load of goat on his back. Inman is visible as a dark, vertical shape just left and above center, picking his way down the loose, rock slope. He's still an hour from camp.
Before enjoying a big campfire and a couple belts of celebratory whiskey, we had to hang all the goat meat, plus the head and cape, and our food and clothes, in the trees. The last thing we wanted was a grizzly in camp.
The following morning, sore and tired but tremendously satisfied, we lowered the goat from the tree and prepared to pack it up and head out of the mountains. To reach the trailhead would require a five-mile hike with loads approaching 70-to 80 pounds.
Here Inman and Brown head over to camp with bags of good meat, ready to place them in packs for the hike out of the mountains. I like this shot because it exemplifies Inman's satisfaction with the hunt and his sense of achievement.

Goat hunting involves equal parts skill, fitness and, most definitely, a lust for living on the edge.