Culturally prized mountain goats may be vanishing from Indigenous land in Canada

For thousands of years, members of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation in Canada have prized the mountain goats that roam the craggy peaks of British Columbia’s central coast.

The animals have long been an important food source, explains Kitasoo/Xai’xais Chief Councillor Doug Neasloss. And “we use the mountain goat in a lot of our cultural events — songs and dances and stories.”

Formerly a wildlife tour guide, Neasloss remembers seeing lots of the goats in the region in past decades, but no longer. And many in the community have noticed a similar trend.

Goats in Kitasoo/Xai’xais territory are thought to occur at lower densities than farther east in the goats’ range in the higher Rocky Mountains. But there has been “almost zero research” on British Columbia’s coastal mountain goats (Oreamnos americanus), until now, says Tyler Jessen, a conservation biologist at the University of Victoria in Canada.

Kitasoo/Xai’xais community members partnered with Jessen and his colleagues to investigate the mountain goats’ status. Numbers of the animals do seem to have undergone a decline since the 1980s, the team reports March 8 in Conservation Science and Practice. The reasons why remain unknown but might be a result of a warming climate, the researchers say.

To estimate contemporary goat numbers and density, the researchers conducted aerial surveys in 2019 and 2020, scrutinizing habitats higher than 1,000 meters above sea level in Kitasoo/Xai’xais territory near Klemtu, British Columbia. To estimate how goat numbers have changed over time, the research team interviewed individuals from the local community who regularly hunt wildlife, guide, conduct research or fish the region. For each decade back to the 1980s, participants gave estimates for how many days out of 10 they saw goats.

photo of Ernest V. Mason sitting in a storage room with a black and white carved mountain goat mask on his lapcta module

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“In hot temperatures, mountain goats can be thermally stressed,” says wildlife biologist Kevin White, formerly with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. His long-term work in coastal Alaska following GPS-collared goats suggests that hot summers decrease mountain goat winter survival. But goat survival can also depend on predation, industrial disturbances and tourism, among other factors, says White, who wasn’t involved in the new study.

Kitasoo/Xai’xais members have voluntarily halted goat hunting in their territory over the last two decades to avoid endangering the goats. The group is also urging provincial authorities in British Columbia to take local knowledge into account, and suspend provincially sanctioned nonresident hunting in territories like theirs where goat numbers appear low.

Though focused on mountain goats, the study’s methods could shed light on any poorly understood wildlife population, Service says (SN: 11/11/19) “There are lots of areas of the world where we don’t have long-term baseline information, and where there are really rich local knowledge sources.”

It’s a case study of what can happen, she says, “when you harness the power of different ways of knowing.”

Source: Culturally prized mountain goats may be vanishing from Indigenous land in Canada

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