For those willing to hoof it on foot, Montana’s Crazy Mountains offer solitude, rewarding views and dozens of alpine lakes full of hungry trout. They also provide some of the best mountain goat hunting opportunities in the state. But the checkerboarded land ownership — even in the alpine — as well as illegally blocked public trails in the foothills create challenges for anyone lucky enough to draw a tag. Goat hunters don’t often need maps to check property boundaries, but in the Crazies they do.
The 40-mile long mountain range in Central Montana offers ideal habitat for these high-dwelling critters. Rising more than 7,000 feet from the valleys to the summit of the privately owned, 11,214-foot Crazy Peak, the drastic climb makes this landscape perfect for goats.
Introduced into the Crazies in the 1940s, mountain goats adapted well. By 1990, the population was healthy enough to sustain carefully monitored hunting opportunities. In 2017, the Crazies accounted for more goat harvests and more available tags than any other unit in Montana. The robust population provides great value to hunters and also contributes to wildlife management funding. In 2019, mountain goat license application fees for the 182 available Montana tags generated $348,180 for conservation. That works out to $1,913 per license holder. In short, mountain goats and their rugged habitat are exceedingly valuable for our state.
To gauge how the Crazies goat population is doing, I joined a dozen volunteers for a goat count last month as part of an effort with the Rocky Mountain Goat Alliance and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Splitting into five groups, we documented the distribution and age/sex ratios of mountain goats, along with the precise location, direction of movement and size of the herds we found.
The path I took was on the west side of the Crazies, running from Cottonwood Creek to Trespass Creek up and over a 9,500 pass and back down to Campfire Lake. This trail climbs 3,500 feet over 7.5 miles and is one of the few non-contested public trails on the west side. The illegal closures of a number of other public trails are currently being challenged in court by a broad coalition of stakeholders, including the Montana chapter of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers.
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In recent years, the U.S. Forest Service has failed to maintain and enforce the limited public access that remains here. These illegally gated lower elevation trails are the only ways to access some prime elk habitat found within the USFS lands in the foothills. In addition, they provide backpacking and mountain biking opportunities, as well as more direct routes to the high country where we spent the weekend. A number of alpine drainages in public ownership are completely blocked to public access.
In the canyon we could access, we found exactly what we were looking for: an abundance of goats. It was easy to count nannies with young kids. Billies were spotted in remote corners of the drainage.
Montana FWP biologists use our counts along with aerial surveys and harvest data to determine the tag allocations for 2020. The findings seem to show that the population is in slight decline, according to FWP biologist Dr. Kelly Proffitt, but still doing well. Proffitt was encouraged by the number of kids we saw, which indicated the highest reproductive rate observed there since 2013.
So while goat hunting opportunities will likely remain in the Crazies, the greater concern is the future of public access. And that is a problem that MT BHA and our partners are committed to resolving.
Learn more about BHA and our involvement in restoring public access to the Crazies at www.backcountryhunters.org.