Un-Patriotic Reflections on Mount Rushmore: Unnatural Habitats

Black Hills, South Dakota

by Cassia Reynolds

Disclaimer: I’m not a big fan of touristy stuff.

I still visited Mount Rushmore. It was one of those you’re-in-South-Dakota-and-you’re-NOT-going-to-do-the-one-thing-people-do-in-South-Dakota-and-for-the-love-of-the-friggin-bald-eagle-aren’t-you-American things. The image of those four dead guys chiseled into that rock has been carved into my brain since I can remember. It’s not just a national memorial. It’s the (excuse the pun) commander in chief of national memorials.

So I waited in the 45-minute car line with every other freaking road tripper in South Dakota, chipped in for the $11 parking fee, and made my way up the stone walkway to have a little face time with Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.

And in the few hours that I spent at and around the Mount Rushmore national memorial, I had several revelations. Here’s the first.

Unnatural Habitats

It was a long, crowded walk from the megamall-esque parking garage to the memorial. I was attempting to dodge a herd of screaming children when a woman’s gasp pierced the air. Mutterings of awe echoed through the congregations. I peered ahead and glimpsed a large creature with shaggy white fur, sharp, curved horns, a long snout, and a heavy-set, muscular frame.


And because my natural instinct when I think that I finally have the chance to meet the Abominable Snowman is to say ‘hi,’ I scrambled past the people in front of me. I was so focused on my possible encounter that I didn’t notice the wide berth everyone else had given this furry visitor. Then I heard a child cry out, “billy goat!”

Forgive my ignorance of America’s wildlife, but I’d only ever seen mountain goats on Discovery Channel. And they just didn’t look this monstrous. Maybe because they were clambering over steep cliffs and enormous mountains, not standing in a pedestrian crosswalk. But I couldn’t help thinking in that moment that damn, I know nature in essence is beautiful, this is one ugly product of evolution.

Now that I knew it was just a goat, I was fearless (In hindsight, I’m an idiot). My camera was out and I was snapping away, quickly closing the distance between it and myself. When I was about ten feet away, I crouched down for a better angle.

The goat heard the incessant clicking of the shutter or maybe just smelled my arrogance and it turned toward me. I lifted my eye away from the viewfinder and found myself staring into the those bottomless, jet pupils.

And that’s when I heard the security guard behind me shouting at the top of his lungs. “Don’t take another step closer! Everybody stay back!”

Oh, shiiiiiiit.

I kept eye contact, slowly lifted my left foot, and scooched backwards. The goat took a step forward.

How sharp are those horns?

Another step toward me. And because if nothing else I am a documentarian, even if it’s of my own possible death, I noticed that the lighting was fantastic at this angle. I lifted my camera back up to my face to take another photograph.

When I dropped eye contact, the trance broke, the goat lost interest and continued on its way. I scrambled backward, dodging the annoyed security guard and shaking off the chills running down my spine.

In all seriousness, meeting this mountain goat was no joke; no encounter with a wild animal is. In the past few years, there have been more and more reported incidents of mountain goats behaving aggressively toward people. Though the first and last report of death-by-mountain-goat-goring was in Washington in 2010, the reality is that encroaching on the territory of wild animals is stupid.

I’m not sure why this mountain goat decided to wander up to a crowded memorial site (possibly for salt, which these critters are known to scavenge for), but it had obviously been around humans enough that its natural skittishness was gone. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. A huge part of what makes America’s national parks and natural landscape so incredible is the ecological diversity, the one that isn’t domesticated. Bears, mountain lions, eagles, deer; all these creatures have their own niche that defines the larger environment.

Mountain goats were introduced to South Dakota’s ranges in the 1920’s when several escaped from an enclosement in Custer State Park. Within twenty years, they had grown from a population of 10 to upwards of 400. Still, this region is technically new to these creatures. Even though men brought them to this area, it’s probably best for them to find their place in this unnatural habitat with as little extra human interaction as possible. And for the sake of science, it’s even more difficult to study the effects of an invasive species on a site if there are outside influences affecting the activities of that species. Here are some tips from the United States Department of Agriculture if you ever find yourself hiking in a goat’s environment:

  • Keep your distance! Stay at least 50 yards away from them – half the length of a football field.
  • If a mountain goat approaches, slowly move away from it to keep a safe distance.
  • If it continues to approach, chase it off by yelling, waving a piece of clothing, or throwing rocks.
  • Never surround, crowd, chase, or follow a mountain goat.
  • Do not feed the mountain goats or allow them to lick your skin or backpack.
  • If you need to urinate while hiking, please go away from the trail to avoid leaving concentrations of salts and minerals near the trail.

Just in case you do find yourself face-to-face with an especially irritable creature, Slate wrote an article on what you should do if attacked by a mountain goat. And as my last piece of mountain goat love, here’s a gift of absolutely adorable baby animal goodness: a video of a baby mountain goat braving rapids.