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Counting Mountain Goats on Mount St. Helens

June 30, 2017

Prior to the eruption of Mount St. Helens, few people realized there were mountain goats living in the area. While that population was likely wiped out by the blast, anecdotal sightings of these high-climbing, sure-footed animals began to crop up in the 1990s. Over the years, U.S. Forest Service biologist Mitch Wainwright heard more reports of mountain goat sightings, prompting him to put together the first official mountain goat survey in 2014.

That year, 65 goats were counted by agency and volunteer teams in the Mount St. Helens/Mount Margaret area. In 2015, that number rose to 152. Continued growth in numbers is good news, not just for ecologists and wildlife lovers, but also for the original people of the area—the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.

For millennia, the tribe sent their young men to gather the rare tufts of goat wool that cling to the brush along the mountain’s lower slopes. Tribal women up and down the Cascade spine, including the Cowlitz, Salish and Cowichan, then wove the lanolin-rich wool into warm, water-resistant blankets. The tradition died out as white settlement introduced decimating diseases, annexed the tribal homelands and made it a crime for Native people to practice their languages and arts.

Today, with the support of government agencies, the painstaking work of collecting the wool has been revived. Cowlitz tribal members now are permitted to gather wool on the Mount St. Helens Volcanic Monument. The next step, says Cowlitz Tribal ecologist Nathan Reynolds, is to relearn the art of weaving.

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