Goats Are Picking Up The Load For Backcountry Travelers. Some Worry About The Impact | KALW

Goats Are Picking Up The Load For Backcountry Travelers. Some Worry About The Impact

Nov 10, 2019
Originally published on November 12, 2019 8:15 pm

The number of people using goats to pack gear, game and food into the backcountry is rising rapidly, and national forests in at least 10 western states have proposed partial pack goat bans to prevent the spread of pathogens that could prove deadly to the west's iconic populations of bighorn sheep.

As long as people have wanted to hike great distances, those people have wanted to carry less stuff on their backs. So they've turned to animals to carry that stuff for them — historically, horses, mules, even llamas. Now, more and more hikers and hunters are loading up goats on the trails of the west.

The haul

On a recent day, Ann Summerton, a registered nurse and pack goat breeder, is unloading two young bucks at a trailhead in the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana.

"It's amazing the reactions we get when we're out in the backcountry. A lot of people have never seen a goat that packs," she says.

The goats are patchy with black, grey, and white fur, and stand a little less than 3 feet tall at the shoulder. She's tying orange reflective tape on their collars to keep them safe from hunters.

Goats are affordable, easy to care for, and navigate the kind of rugged, tight, and steep terrain horses just can't manage. To top it off, they graze as they go, so users don't have to pack in any food for the animals.

A full-grown male can carry about 70 pounds. Goats can haul out game from a hunting trip, pack camping supplies miles into the mountains, or just help day hikers who can't carry their own gear enjoy the crisp mountain air.

"It's kind of an exploding sport, if you will," Summerton says.

There are no centralized statistics, but Summerton says demand for the critters is getting higher across the west, and she feels it in her own operation. State and federal land management agencies are also giving the practice attention it's never before received.

"Goats have been banned in some areas, so we're trying to fight against that a little bit," she says.

Should pack goats be banned?

For the first time, national forests are formalizing pack goat regulations as they revise their forest plans. Those big documents only come along once every couple decades, and they govern wilderness, recreation, resources, and other uses. Some agencies are thinking about risks from llamas, too.

Agencies are devoting more attention to the animals because as pack goat numbers are increasing on public land, another species is struggling to maintain its footing. Before European settlement, more than a million bighorn sheep roamed across western North America. Entire cultures developed around the animal.

"By the 1950s, bighorn sheep numbers were fewer than 25,000," says Kevin Hurley, vice president of conservation and operations at the Wild Sheep Foundation.

Bannack is a 2-year-old Alpine goat bred to haul loads into and out of the backcountry. National forests are formalizing pack goat regulations as they revise their forest plans.
Nick Mott / Montana Public Radio

For decades, scientists have said domestic sheep grazing on public lands could transmit pathogens — in particular, Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, or M. ovi for short — to bighorns that lead to pneumonia, an infection that's devastated bighorn populations across the west. In Montana, more than 25 bighorn herds have experienced die-offs since the '80s.

"It's pretty tough to watch," Hurley says. "But it's been documented over and over again across so many jurisdictions. And so respiratory pneumonia is considered possibly the biggest impediment to bighorn restoration west-wide."

But the science isn't so clear. Some studies suggest that transmission of the pathogens from pack goats isn't likely, or severe. The question is: should pack goats be banned, or can backcountry users keep risk to a minimum?

Hurley wants to keep goats out of core bighorn habitat, but he's also worked with pack goat advocates to develop best packing practices to reduce risk.

Quentin Kujala, wildlife management section chief at Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, says both goats and bighorns can thrive in the backcountry — and recommended against bans in consultation with the Forest Service. He sees the controversy over pack goats as representative of the unforeseen impacts wrought by the larger boom of outdoor recreation.

A September report from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis shows spending on gear and outdoor experiences is growing at a faster rate than the country's economy as a whole.

"Just as the forest planning process has picked up a new item that is pack goat use that wasn't there, It's no doubt good for all of us to think about all the other many things that have changed with respect to human use and expectations of those public lands," Kujala says.

Copyright 2019 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Outdoor recreation is booming. And as the woods get more crowded, their ecosystems are changing and leading to some unexpected debates. National forests in 10 Western states are now considering banning goats in some places. Montana Public Radio's Nick Mott explains why.

NICK MOTT, BYLINE: As long as people have wanted to hike great distances, those people have wanted to carry less stuff on their backs, so they've turned to animals to carry that stuff for them, historically horses, mules, even llamas. And now more and more hikers and hunters are loading up goats on the trails of the West.

ANN SUMMERTON: It's amazing the reactions we get when we're out in the backcountry with these goats. A lot of people have never seen a goat that packs.

MOTT: Ann Summerton, a registered nurse and pack goat breeder, is unloading two young bucks at a trailhead in the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOATS BLEATING)

MOTT: The goats are patchy with black, gray and white fur and stand a little less than 3 feet tall at the shoulder. She's tying orange reflective tape on their collars to keep them safe from hunters.

SUMMERTON: Isn't that cute? Just wrapped up like a Christmas present.

MOTT: Goats are affordable, easy to care for and navigate the kind of rugged, tight and steep terrain horses just can't manage. A full grown male can carry about 70 pounds. To top it off, they graze as they go, so users don't have to pack in any food for the animals. Goats can haul out game from a hunting trip, pack camping supplies miles into the mountains or just help day hikers who can't carry their own gear enjoy the crisp mountain air.

SUMMERTON: It's kind of an exploding sport, if you will.

MOTT: There are no centralized statistics, but Summerton says demand for the critters is getting higher across the West. And she feels it in her own operation. State and federal land management agencies are also giving the practice attention it's never before received.

SUMMERTON: Goats have been banned in some areas, so we're trying to fight against that a little bit.

MOTT: For the first time, national forests are formalizing pack goat regulations. Some agencies are thinking about risks from llamas, too. That's because, as pack goat numbers are increasing on public land, another species is struggling to maintain its footing. Before European settlement, more than a million bighorn sheep roamed across western North America.

KEVIN HURLEY: By the 1950s, bighorn sheep numbers were fewer than 25,000.

MOTT: Kevin Hurley is with the Wild Sheep Foundation. For decades, scientists have said domestic sheep grazing on public lands could transmit pathogens to bighorns that lead to pneumonia, an infection that's devastated bighorn populations across the West. In Montana, more than 25 bighorn herds have experienced die-offs since the '80s.

HURLEY: And so respiratory pneumonia is considered possibly the biggest impediment to bighorn restoration West-wide.

MOTT: Goats host those same pathogens, and Hurley says pack goats could pass them on to bighorns in the backcountry.

HURLEY: The best thing you can do is to separate bighorns from domestics in time and space.

MOTT: But the science isn't so clear. Some studies suggest that transmission of the pathogens from pack goats isn't likely or severe. Hurley wants to keep goats out of core bighorn habitat, but he's also worked with pack goat advocates to develop best packing practices to reduce risk.

Quentin Kujala with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says both goats and bighorns can thrive in the backcountry and recommended against bans in consultation with the Forest Service. He sees the controversy over pack goats as representative of the unforeseen impacts wrought by the larger boom of outdoor recreation.

QUENTIN KUJALA: It's no doubt good for all of us to think about all the other many things that have changed with respect to human use and expectations of those public lands.

MOTT: For NPR News, I'm Nick Mott in Missoula.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.