By RALPH BARTHOLDT
Derek Darst grew up with stories of mountain goats clattering over rocky ledges in the St. Joe and Clearwater national forests.
The St. Maries resident, hunter, angler and owner of St. Maries Flies heard tales from his uncle and father of chasing goats in the high country, the occasional harvest and the many seasons when filling a tag was a strenuous and fruitless endeavor.
When it was his turn, Darst, 37, got a taste of the adventure implicit in pursuing Idaho’s beasts, which are the color of winter.
Last month, one tag was awarded to hunters who applied for a mountain goat hunt in Panhandle Units 7 and 9.
Darst was drawn for a Clearwater tag three years ago and hunted in Unit 10, which abuts the Panhandle’s most southeastern units and can be accessed from the St. Joe River side of the Clearwater National Forest, or from the North Fork of the Clearwater River near Pierce.
The goat populations of Units 7 and 9, and Unit 10 of the Clearwater, probably intermingle because they occupy the same mountain ranges, said Panhandle big game biologist Laura Wolf, who flew over the area earlier this year in an effort to get a handle on mountain goat numbers.
“I would expect there might be movement to the south,” Wolf said. “There could be an interchange of goats between Units 9 and 10.”
Idaho Fish and Game has a one-tag limit for the southern Panhandle’s goat herd. That means only one hunter who applies for a goat tag for Units 7 and 9 is chosen. Goat populations in the two units, although stable, are comprised of pretty low numbers as far as Fish and Game can tell.
During their flyover this year, biologists counted 18 mountain goats in Unit 7, and 48 mountain goats in Unit 9, Wolf said. Biologists have seen numbers reliably pegged somewhere over 50 goats in those areas for decades.
“It’s always been about 60 and 70 total,” Wolf said.
One other tag is awarded in the Panhandle, and that is a Unit 1 hunt in the Selkirk Mountains.
Darst drew a tag and bagged a billy in the fall of 2014 with horns measuring close to 10 inches in a hunt that he remembers best for its arduousness. He didn’t expect it to be easy.
“My dad drew a tag in 2008,” he said. That tag was also for Unit 10 and his dad hunted near Mallard Peak. “He shot the only goat he saw in a week and a half.”
To prepare for his hunt, Darst had scouted the area south of Mallard Peak in the Isabella Creek drainage earlier in the summer and as leaves took on fall hues, and the tips of tamaracks leaned yellow, he found himself carrying a .300 Winchester Ultramag in the high country glassing for mountain goats by himself.
He saw goats, often across valleys, or on ridges too difficult to reach. He shot the first, nearest, billy he located, caped and boned the animal, filled his pack to near 100 pounds and set off back to his base camp in the afternoon of the first day of his hunt.
“I walked 100 yards and pretty much had to sit down,” Darst said.
Bulging with meat, hide and head, along with the rest of his gear, the pack was overloaded and he had far to go in steep country.
He stashed most of his gear and opted to pack out the trophy, and some essentials including a package of food and fire starter, but the going wasn’t much easier.
“It was hours and hours of sliding, falling, rolling,” he said. “I even rolled head over heels. I smashed my knee on a rock.”
When darkness fell, he was out of water and a mile from camp.
“A mile in that country is a whole different story,” he said.
He spent the night under a cluster of cedars in a rainstorm. He built a fire, roasted some goat meat and after a fitful sleep returned to camp the next day.
The rigorous hunt was about what he expected.
Not far from where Darst hunted, a stream called Goat Creek drains pockets of runoff from the border of the Panhandle and Clearwater divides.
The stream’s name is an indicator of the area’s natural history.
Biologist Dave Taylor who works in Lewiston’s Clearwater regional office said mountain goat numbers in the Clearwater have also been even-keeled. The number of goats in Unit 10 have for decades remained between 75 and 100 animals, and two additional tags were recently added for the unit.
“That’s kind of where the population has been for quite a while as far as we can tell,” Taylor said.
Recent aerial counts showed fewer than 10 goats in the Clearwater’s Lochsa unit, but biologists believe snow, or cover, prevented an accurate count there.
In the past, numbers there have hovered steadily around 65 mountain goats.
“You know you don’t see all the animals when you fly,” Taylor said. “Depending on weather, or the type of habitat.”
Idaho’s mountain goats are native to the state and Fish and Game estimates about 2,600 individuals live in Idaho, with populations peaking near 3,100 in the 1990s.
Mountain goats feed on grasses, shrubs and forbs, and migrate between winter and summer ranges depending on seasonal conditions. Lower elevation winter ranges usually include south and west-facing cliffs where snow is less abundant.
But the animals don’t spend all their time on cliffs. A Fish and Game trail camera documented a nanny and a kid living along a forest road where biologists did not expect to find goats, Wolf said.
Although populations are solid, they are also susceptible to overhunting, which can drain populations and stunt numbers for a long time. In the late 1950s, when tags were purchased over the counter, almost 60 mountain goats were shot by hunters in Unit 9, Wolf said. Populations have not fully recovered.
Getting the opportunity to hunt goats in Idaho is unique, because odds of being drawn for a tag are around 5 percent and applicants must apply before April 30.
If he had a chance, Darst said, he would consider going again.
“I would bring another person to help share the load,” he said. “It’s one of those things, that you’re glad you went, but you don’t know if you’d want to go through that again.”