Packers at odds with bighorn conservationists
By MATT ENTRUP
PENDLETON — As far as locations for holding a national convention go, the tiny eastern Oregon town of Ukiah may seem like an odd choice.
But to the 100 or so “heartbeats” gathered for the North American Pack Goat Association’s annual rendezvous at a campground on the fringe of the John Day Wilderness, the region lies at the heart of the largest issue facing them and their kind.
A growing number of goat packing enthusiasts are coming into conflict with public land managers over their rights to access and enjoy areas that are also home to bighorn sheep.
In eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains, a proposed buffer zone around bighorn sheep habitat would close the range to goat packers entirely.
The reason, say those leading the bighorn sheep conservation efforts, is pack goats could potentially spread the bacteria Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (sheep pneumonia).
It’s the greatest threat to bighorn sheep populations, but NAPGA co-founder Carolyn Eddy of Eagle Creek said goat packers are being unfairly lumped in with domestic sheep and goat farmers. It’s an issue they say reaches beyond the classification of pack goats and delves into the turbulent waters of civil liberties and public land usage.
Eddy said it’s a tough situation “to have to fight an organization that everybody else loves.” It’s a fight NAPGA has been slowly losing ground in since its founding in 1999, and as bighorn sheep are reintroduced to more areas the goat packers’ territory shrinks.
“We’re not a danger to their sheep,” Eddy said. “And we’ve spent as much money and time trying to prove that as they have on the other side, and there just isn’t any research that backs (their claims) up.”
Eddy doesn’t deny that domestic herds could easily transmit sheep pneumonia to native populations and should be kept far apart, it’s the idea that pack goats are nothing more than livestock that seems to be at the heart of conflict.
When it comes to the relationship they have with their owners, Clay Zimmerman of Evanston, Wyoming, likens pack goats to the family pooch.
“My goats are my family, they’re my pets, they’re my friends,” he said.
Zimmerman and his wife Charlotte own and operate the only pack goat rental service in the country, High Uinta Pack Goats, which they founded in 1994 after purchasing their first goats to make hiking easier on Charlotte’s bad knees.
Zimmerman doesn’t rent his “family” out lightly, either. His vetting process includes a three-hour instructional class at the family farm, and he won’t send his goats out with a customer he doesn’t trust.
Even then, there was audible disbelief among those at the conference that he could trust a stranger with his goats in the wilderness for days at a time.
NAPGA member and conference organizer Curtis King of Burbank, Washington, raises and trains pack goats for personal use and sale, and said there’s a deep bond that forms.
“The training with these guys start the minute they get home. Daily walks, lots of interactions with their human handlers. You have to become the alpha goat,” he said. “They’re as smart as dogs, they’re as smart as pigs in my opinion. Goats are a very intelligent animal.”
Many owners of pack goats raise them in groups of less than 10, and in close proximity to their homes. These goats are well tended and carefully vaccinated, said Eddy, and therefore much less likely to be a carrier of sheep pneumonia, which was found in more than 80 percent of domestic commercial herds tested in 2011 by the National Animal Health Monitoring System. The tight bonds with their owners and the goat’s natural herd behavior also ensure they won’t wander off and accidentally come in contact with a bighorn sheep.
And Eddy is far from alone in her fight. When she co-founded NAPGA to help a couple of friends in Idaho who had been shut out of a campground, Eddy said there was a lot of snickering.
“People laughed and said, ‘Oh no, there’s going to be five people doing this. It doesn’t matter,’” she said. “Low and behold there’s hundreds and hundreds of people doing it now.”
Hunters are one of the key groups driving the surge in goat packing popularity for several reasons.
“I think the hunters are starting to turn to the goat as a primary pack animal because of the ease that they provide.
I can put four of them in the back of a pickup,” said King, who frequently takes his goats on trips into the Blue Mountain’s Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness. “It’s opened up a whole new set of doors for me as a fisherman and a backpacker.”
A fit pack goat can haul one quarter its body weight (about 50 pounds for a full grown male), for about 10-12 miles.
“We’re talking about goats that work for a living and do this day in and day out,” King said. “Barnyard potato, he’s going to go about a mile and then he’s done.”
They tackle the toughest of terrain with ease.
“We put horses and llamas to shame where we can go,” Zimmerman said.
“The goat starts where the horse stops,” King said.
Goats also forage off the land, meaning no need to carry food, and are the most Eco-friendly option available, King said.
“The leave no trace mentality — that’s the pack goat. Goats are the lowest impact animal on the planet. They don’t damage anything, they leave very little sign in their trail.”
For more information about NAPGA or goat packing go to NAPGA.org. For local goat packers, Columbia Basin Packgoat Club organizes excursions around the Pacific Northwest and is online at CBpackgoats.wix.com/cbpc. For information on booking a trip with a team of Zimmerman’s goats, visit HighUintaPackGoats.com.
Contact Matt Entrup at email@example.com or (541) 966-0838.