On July 20 of this year, Camp Sherman resident Peter Eshrick was making his annual pilgrimage hike into the saddle above Canyon Creek Meadows with his daughter Katrina and her two kids Camila and Samuel (ages 12 and 10), when Camila suddenly shouted,"What's that over there on the mountain side?"
"What, over where?" Granddaddy Peter replied.
Camila pointed to the talus slopes on the side of Three Fingered Jack and said, "Those white dots over there. They're moving; they look like polar bears, or maybe they're unicorns."
"Well," said Granddad Peter, now telling the tale, "Camila's sharp young eyes may have been able to spot them easily, but it took a lot of pointing and describing before I finally saw what she was pointing at."
He went on to say: "By then Katrina and Samuel had reached the top, and of course both of them spotted what we were talking about straight away. Soon the debate was raging... Big horn sheep? Mountain goat? Polar bear? Unicorn? There was a strong contingent going for polar bear, with unicorn having at least one vocal proponent."
When Peter passed this story on to me, I could only think of one person who could answer the questions that developed from the sighting: Wildlife Biologist Corey Heath of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Bend Regional Office.
After a discussion with Heath about the possibility of a unicorn or polar bear on Three Fingered Jack, Heath said, "We're too far south for a polar bear, and don't ask me about unicorns, I know nothing about them." Then with a broad grin he added, "But if you want to talk about mountain goats, I'm your man."
And so it went, from the first time ODFW considered restoration of the species in our high country in the '50s, to what the Department has been up to today.
According to Heath, the first attempt to reintroduce beautiful mountain goats (aka Rocky Mountain Goats) to Oregon was a small release back in the early '50s, into the Wallowas of Eastern Oregon. (Biologically speaking, mountain goats are not true goats—but they are close relatives—more properly known as "goat-antelopes".)
From that time to the early 2000s, things were sort of in limbo. Reports of mountain goats drifted in, but no one seemed to know what was going on. Then a release was made into the Elkhorns/Mt. Adams areas in 1983, and a couple of years later a small group of mountain goats was spotted in the Strawberries, near John Day (most thought they had made it from the Elkhorns).
Then in March of 2010 a lone billy appeared at Horse Ridge (20 miles east of Bend) in Dry Canyon. It was hard to miss—that beautiful white coat set against the dark basalt lava rock cliffs on Dry Canyon. In retrospect, it's a wonder that lone mountain goats didn't cause a lot of wrecks, since they stood out so much for motorists to gape at.
That mountain goat was captured and a radio collar was placed on him before he was released. Wildlife biologists believe he wandered cross-country all the way from the release in the Elkhorns, way over by Sumpter.
After being radio-tagged, he eventually meandered over into the Mt. Newberry area where he met up with a sweet little radio-collared nanny—placed there by Heath and members of the ODFW Mountain Goat crew—who eventually gave birth to a kid. Sadly though, the fate of the kid is unknown, as the nanny was found dead last spring.
Eshrick and his family's spotting of the goats on Three Fingered Jack in 2013 was thanks to the combined efforts of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and ODFW biologists; they trapped 24 mountain goats from the Elkhorns group and released them in tribal lands on the lower slopes of Mt. Jefferson.
Historical literature and archeological evidence tells today's biologists that Rocky Mountain Goats occurred on Mt. Jefferson prior to the appearance of European Americans, and the region still appears to be a good fit for the species. ODFW last surveyed the area in mid-July and counted 29 goats, including two sets of twins.
To make the story even more fun, Brady Wessle of Bend sent me an email stating he spotted a nanny feeding on grasses on the side of Forest Road 2076, near Link Lake. Heath thinks this could be one of the goats from the group the Eshrick family spotted on Three Fingered Jack.
Brady said, "I was driving back from Link Lake, when I saw a white animal emerge from the bushes on the left of the road. I was a bit shocked when I realized it was a goat! It had small, pointy horns and hooves, and looked a little scruffy, perhaps from shedding its winter coat. It ran up the road when it saw me and veered off to the right, going back up into the bushes."
And right here, Oh Best Beloved, is the time to ask you to give them/it lots of room. If you see one, please don't chase or follow it. Just stop and let the animal (any wild animal) leave your presence in its own time and space. Stay in your vehicle, as Brady did, and shoot a couple of pictures, but the less the animal sees of you and the quicker it decides to leave that area on its own, the better off everyone will be.
All these sightings seem to indicate mountain goats were historically in the high lava lands west of the Sisters Country, as they are equipped to handle—and reproduce—in the harsh environment of the High Cascades. It is also Heath's opinion the goats sighted by Wessel and the Eshrick family are from that original release on tribal lands near Mt. Jefferson. The Unicorns, however, are still a mystery.