Searching for sentinels at the top of the world

Alpine ecosystems are profoundly affected by climate change.

White on white is hard to see. It is especially difficult when what’s white is a mountain goat tucked into the nooks and crannies at the top of a mountain. These elusive animals cling to the windswept peaks of the coastal mountains of British Columbia where they find relief from warm summer temperatures and the eyes of predators. Yet this hardy mountain species faces a rapidly changing environment.

Alpine ecosystems are profoundly affected by climate change. Temperature increases, as well as alterations to the timing and length of the growing season for important plant food species, may create unfavourable conditions for mountain goat survival and reproduction. In the coastal mountains of British Columbia, observations by the Kitasoo/Xai’xais First Nation indicate that goats are not often found in areas they once inhabited.

To better understand how climate change might affect the distribution and abundance of this culturally, ecologically, and economically important species, Raincoast’s Applied Conservation Science Lab has partnered with the Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nation and BC Parks to launch a new research program on mountain goats in the coastal mountains of BC.

By systematically searching mountain tops for the presence or absence of mountain goats, we can begin to understand what habitat conditions and terrain types support greater numbers of mountain goats. Furthermore, we can gain insight into how large-scale changes to ecosystems associated with climate change shape the distribution and abundance of species. In this way, mountain goats serve as a “sentinel” or “indicator” of the magnitude of the effects of climate change on alpine ecosystems. 

Having completed the first year of field work this past August, our initial results point toward a very low density population of mountain goats on the coast relative to other areas of the province – consistent with observations from the Kitasoo/Xai’xais. Living at the geographical and physiological limits of the species, even small changes in the habitat of mountain goats may have a large impact on the population.

As we launch into analyzing the newly collected data, we are eager to better understand the patterns in goat observations that we have found. Ultimately the successful management of this species, whether through the direct stewardship of the Kitasoo/Xai’xais or provincial management plans, hinges upon a foundational understanding of their ecology in the context of a rapidly changing environment. 

A version of this article was first published at the University of Victoria.

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Chris Genovali, executive director of Raincoast Conservation Foundation.
Chris Genovali, Executive Director

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