Those with strong legs and a sense of adventure can follow any number of trails or ridge lines up to the peaks of the Yukon’s soaring mountains. Despite the thrill those high places promise, hikers should take care not to disturb the year-round residents of the alpine when they are at their most vulnerable.
The thinhorn sheep and mountain goats that scratch out a living above the tree line both give birth to their young in the early spring.
The season when their young are born, called lambing season for the sheep and kidding season for the goats, can begin as early as mid-April depending on conditions. Meghan Larivee, an ungulate biologist with the Yukon Government’s sheep and goat program, said the season peaks mid-May to mid-June, leaving both the newborn animals and their mothers especially vulnerable to disturbance.
Both the sheep and goats have fairly limited habitat that they will retreat to for lambing and kidding season. Larivee said they will seek “escape terrain” protected by steep cliffs or other features where they will stay sequestered until their young are better able to flee from predators or other threats on their own.
Larivee said that escape terrain near the sheep and goats’ winter range is limited and so users of the high country must make efforts to avoid it during the lambing and kidding season.
Along with its inaccessibility to predators, the escape terrain is also more likely to be free of snow due to steep slopes and high winds. Higher snow packs or precipitation shortly after the lambs and kids are born can lead to higher mortality among them.
Larivee said biologists have conducted good survey work of the sheep and goat populations and are able to provide good guidance on lambing season hot spots for hikers and other users to avoid. A few of these areas have signage advising users to avoid them when the young and vulnerable sheep and goats may be present, but many do not.
She said most hiking or mountain biking trails are not in areas frequented by sheep or goats. Also, most people hiking in areas that are south facing and more gently graded than what the sheep or goats will select this time of year.
There remains some areas where conflict between recreational mountain users and the sheep and goats is possible.
Larivee said mountain goats are often on or near White Mountain along the Atlin Road in the spring. The mountain is a well-known hiking spot with a trail up to a helipad at the top of it. She said it is an important place for the goats, offering good escape terrain for their kidding season, and should be avoided by recreational users until the snow is gone in June.
Caribou Mountain near Carcross is an important lambing site for sheep. Larivee said there are good lambing areas close to the well-used trail up the mountain that begins just north of Carcross.
Larivee said users of the Nares Mountain trail near Carcross should also be aware that sheep and goats could be nearby, but animals are not commonly seen near the area used by hikers.
Sheep Mountain in Kluane National Park is another site where users often see the wild sheep.
Another of the popular hikes near Carcross, Montana Mountain, has sheep and goats nearby for much of the year. Larivee said she isn’t sure about how much it is used for lambing and kidding but it is in use in the post-lambing period which can be equally important. Larivee said there is good growth of green vegetation in the area early in the spring making it an attractive feeding site. The lambing season is mostly over by June 15, but the sheep or goats will then gather into nursery groups of females, their young and some younger adult males to begin seeking areas to feed and get strong before the coming winter.
Larivee said the sheep and goats need all the food they can get during the short growing season. Disturbances to the animals’ routine of feeding and rest can place them in a state of vigilance for a long time, keeping them from the tasks that are important for their survival.
Mortality rates are high for the whole first year of the young sheep and goats lives. Larivee said they are vulnerable to predation from the wolves, coyotes and other predators that lurk on the ground and can even be carried off by golden eagles. It is up to the mother sheep and goats to keep a watchful eye out for threats and people intruding into the area can break their focus on this task.
The Sam McGee trail near Carcross is another example of a popular route that may cross an important feeding site for goats. It isn’t necessarily an area to avoid but trail users, especially those who continue exploring the backcountry at the end of the trail, should be aware of the goats and give them plenty of space to avoid disturbing them.
Larivee recommended trail users pack a set of binoculars in order to get a good view of sheep or goats from well outside the area that might disturb them. She said the Sheep and Crane Festival in Faro, scheduled for May 6 to 8 this year, is a great example of responsible viewing as spotting scopes are set up to get a look at the nursery groups of sheep on distant hillsides.
Larivee said that some of the areas with lots of sheep near Carcross are also important calving grounds for the Southern Lakes caribou herd which can be vulnerable in many of the same ways after having their young.
Contact Jim Elliot at firstname.lastname@example.org