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RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — While some people may be surprised to learn that mountain goats are not native to the Black Hills, state wildlife officials hope a rejuvenated population of transplants and zoo escapees will continue to grow and thrive.
"We want people to be able to hike up and see them and for people to see them at Mount Rushmore. That's important to a lot of people," said John Kanta, regional wildlife manager for the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks.
The Black Hills' original mountain goat herd dates to the 1920s, when six animals were imported from Alberta, Canada, and placed in a zoo in Custer State Park.
They weren't penned up for long.
"Within a matter of few weeks or a few months those goats escaped," Kanta said.
The goats found a new home in the granite outcroppings in the park and eventually expanded throughout the Alpine areas of the Hills.
The goat population grew to an estimated 300-400 animals by the 1960s and 70s.
Kanta said that while the numbers began to decline in the 1980s, the population remained generally healthy.
Around 2000 the population started to decrease in size pretty significantly, he said.
"We didn't know exactly why," Kanta said.
Theories on the decline ranged from increased predation from mountain lions, encroachment by trees in the open rocky areas mountain goats prefer and human pressure from hikers and rock climbers.
Also a possibility is what Kanta called a lack of genetic diversity.
Because the Black Hills population originated from just six animals, Kanta said the descendants became less hardy and vulnerable to disease and climactic changes.
To increase the bloodlines, officials bolstered the population with 22 goats brought in from Utah last October, added to 19 animals transplanted from Colorado in 2006.
The transfer from Utah, including the move, disease testing and staff time cost around $30,000 with donations from the Dakota Chapter of Safari Club International and the Midwest Wild Sheep Foundation added to Game, Fish & Parks funds to cover a third of the cost.
A $6,000 donation from the Midwest Wild Sheep Foundation paid for radio collars to monitor the animals. Weekly flights monitor the animals' movements and well-being, he said.
Public rumors of the Utah herd being decimated by mountain lions are untrue, Kanta said. One of the transplanted goats died from stress related to the move, he said. The rest are adapting well to their new surroundings.
"New bloodlines increase the genetic diversity and we like genetic diversity," Kanta said. "We should be healthy since these animals will be co-mingling."
Goats can be found in the granite spires of Custer State Park and around the Crazy Horse memorial and Mount Rushmore. They have also been spotted in Spring Creek Canyon, Spearfish Canyon and Vanocker Canyon, Kanta said.
Mount Rushmore is the most likely place to see mountain goats and mornings are the best time of day to spot them close to the highways, Kanta said.
"I always say that's your best bet," he said.
Mountain goats may not be native to western South Dakota, but they have adapted to the rocky high points of the central and southern Black Hills.
"For a mountain goat that's a must-have. They bed up on those rocks. They stand on those and can see danger coming from miles away. They're very agile on the rocks. They move around well," Kanta said.
Mountain goats are herbivorous, munching on plants and berries, even subsisting on lichen scraped off the rocks.
"Just like domestic goats, they'll eat just about anything," Kanta said.
The GF&P will continue to keep an eye on the current population. The animals have been off-limits for hunting since 2007, but a limited season could return if the population continues to grow, Kanta said.
"This really should set us up for years to come," Kanta said.
Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com
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