POWELL — Ice- and mud-covered roads certainly weren’t going to get between Desarae Starck and her limited quota tag for a bull elk deep in the Bighorn Mountains. She was set on hiking into the woods with husband Justin — about 5 miles from any sign of civilization.
The Starcks planned to stay in the Bighorns for as long as it would take, but hoped to harvest a bull within a week. Needing provisions and equipment for their extended trip, the Rozet ranchers could only carry a small portion on their backs. So they brought some goats.
The Starck family is part of a growing number of outdoors enthusiasts opting for pack goats instead of the equine equivalent. The Starcks aren’t anti-horse — they have those too. But when they want to go where no horse can follow, they employ their herd of billies. Their goats love it.
“When I back my truck up, they all run to me, excited to go along,” Justin said Monday, as he unloaded saddles and equipment from the family truck at the trailhead.
The couple has two children, but wanted to continue backcountry hiking and hunting. Needing to carry the toddlers on their own backs, they wanted to find an easy way to carry provisions and gear. Then they discovered a paperback book titled “The Pack Goat” by Atlantic City resident John Mionczynski.
“Everything he described in the book was exactly what we were looking for,” Desarae said.
The Starcks were particularly attracted to the low start-up and maintenance costs and the small amount of space needed to raise their stock. They were also attracted to how safe goats are around children.
“Unlike a horse, when the goats get spooked they’re not going to take off and leave you,” Desarae said. “They’re actually going to run to you.”
The goats look at their owners as pack leaders. Each goat has been imprinted with humans from birth. The Starcks bottle-fed their goats for about three months to ensure they felt like part of the family. “It creates a bond,” she said.
The bonding results in patient, obedient goats with similar characteristics to family dogs, Desarae said. The family purchased the goats when they were about 2 weeks old and spent the next couple years rearing and training them for their tasks. Goats learn commands just like a dog, said Curtis King, president of the North American Packgoat Association.
“Pretty soon you have a goat that will follow you anywhere in the backcountry and take all your stuff,” King said.
The one difference from a family hound, at least for the Starck family, is that the goats never come in the house.
“When you’re around the house they sometimes cry,” Desarae said. “They always want to be with you.”
They bought three of their kids (the name for an immature goat) from a breeder specializing in pack goat species. Alpines, prized for their athletic ability and carrying capacity, are the most popular for the sport but many prefer hybrids. Two of the Starcks’ favorite goats were purchased from a local dairy farm.
The best pack goats are wethers (a nice way to say castrated males). Wethers not destined for trails are typically raised for meat.
Once mature, a good pack goat can carry up to 70 pounds, depending on the animal. And they can do so all day. They forage for food — nibbling plant tops like a deer — and they don’t need to be led to water. They can get enough water from the dew on the grass, Justin said.
The experience of traveling with pack goats is “close to the freedom of backpacking,” Justin said. “That’s what I like the most.”
Last summer, the entire Starck family — including Rhett, 3, and 6-month-old Remington — took a scouting trip. Without the goats, the couple would have had to leave the children behind.
Imprinted pack goat kids start at $150 and range to about $500. A full pack and saddle kit costs about the same, depending on level of quality. In contrast, according to Everyday Horsing, the average price for a trained riding horse is about $5,000. The cost of saddle with stirrups, bridle and saddle pad averages $1,000, while grain and hay averages $200 and grooming gear around $100. So in total, it costs about $6,000 for a horse. Then you have to add the cost of a horse trailer and a stout truck to pull it. The tab can grow to tens of thousands.
While cheaper, there are limits. For instance, goats aren’t ready to carry a full, 50- to 70-pound pack until their third year and usually start to slow down at age 10.
Goats are not just for hunters, according to Clay Zimmerman of Evanston, who has been raising and running pack goats since 1994.
“Senior citizens, injured vets, persons with disabilities, and young children unable to carry packs and equipment can confidently enjoy the great outdoors with a goat on hand to carry their gear,” he said.
Zimmerman owns High Uinta Pack Goats and has been leasing and selling goats and providing training programs for mountain trips since 1994. He got into pack goats to help his wife, Charlotte, who was having debilitating knee pain. The couple loved to go on long hikes in the mountains — often traveling 100 miles over 10 to 15 days in the hills. Getting the weight off her back helped prolong her time on mountain trails. “She was able to postpone her knee surgery about 20 years,” he said.
Eventually the Zimmermans’ herd grew into a thriving business, when hunting groups wanted to rent his pack goats.
“We can hardly keep up with the demand,” Zimmerman said. “Interest has quadrupled in the past five years.”
He suggests renting goats for a trip or two before investing.
“They’re not for everyone,” he said. “It’s better to know what you’re getting into before buying a herd.”
He charges $35 per goat, per day with a minimum of two goats. While a trailer isn’t absolutely necessary, trucks need to be set up with high sides for the goat’s safety.
Before each rental, customers go through a three- to four-hour training course to teach them how to handle the goats and equipment. Zimmerman also offers courses for hikers and hunters on how to raise their own herd.
One big difference between goats and horses is you can’t just tie your goat up at camp and leave them behind. They need to be near their pack leader at all times. But there’s an advantage to having them near as well, Zimmerman said. They seem to put wildlife at ease, in contrast with wild animals’ usual skittishness when seeing hunters with horses.
“We’ve walked right through a herd of elk before,” Zimmerman said. “We were a little nervous, but the elk just went about their business.”
Not everyone is a fan of the pack goat movement. In 2011, the Shoshone National Forest banned the use of pack goats, fearing they would spread disease to prized bighorn sheep herds. The North American Packgoat Association sued and eventually won the right to use pack goats in the forest.
When deciding to ban pack goats, forest officials lumped them in with domestic sheep, which can carry Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, often referred to by the nickname “Movi.” The pathogen is believed to be the most likely primary cause of fatal outbreaks of bighorn sheep pneumonia that has threatened their recovery.
While goats can also carry movi, Desarae points out that a small pack goat herd is different from hundreds or thousands of free-ranging sheep. The treasurer for North American Packgoat Association, she said that pack goats get more medical care, making it much less likely they’ll be taken into the mountains when ill. Recent studies have also shown that, even if pack goats and bighorn sheep commingle, there is little chance of disease transmission.
After the lawsuit, North American Packgoat Association leaders met with representatives from the Forest Service and other stakeholders to develop a set of regulations for pack goat use in the Shoshone National Forest. The goats are still prohibited in Wyoming’s occupied core native bighorn sheep habitat, but there are no restrictions in the Bighorns. And there also are no concerns about grizzlies, unlike the Shoshone.
Zimmerman said grizzlies are an issue with pack goats, but putting a bell on each goat solves most of those issues.
As for the Starcks, Desarae’s hunt didn’t last long. She scored a beautiful six-point bull on Tuesday morning, her first day of hunting. After packing out the meat with their goats, the Starcks and their helpers returned to their camp site to enjoy more time together in the wilderness.