CASPER, Wyo. — Jewel Dirks started taking goats into the Wind River Range 17 years ago from her home in Riverton. She’d spent her life hiking and backpacking in the granite mountains, but as she grew older she needed a little help carrying her supplies.
A friend suggested pack goats. The little creatures turned out to be exactly what she needed: easy on the land, nimble on rocks, and good friends.
Since then, she’s spent every spring, summer and fall packing into the mountains.
Now if she wants to go, she has to leave her goats at home.
On Monday, the Shoshone National Forest placed a temporary ban on domestic goats in some areas of the Wind River Range until the end of 2013 because of possible disease transmission to bighorn sheep. Even though closures affect the Clarks Fork, Greybull, Wapiti and Wind River ranger districts, most of the impact will be felt in the Wind River Range Whiskey Mountain area and the south Absaroka Range outside of Dubois. This area is ideal for goat packing because of rocky terrain.
Goats will still be allowed in the Washakie Ranger District in the Southern Wind Rivers outside of Lander. Opinions about the ban are split among Western goat packers.
Dirks supports the Forest Service’s temporary ban.
“To think I cannot go back into a place that is my home, it rips my heart out and I cry about it a lot,” Dirks said.
The chances of her goat causing an outbreak are very small, but if it happened she said, “that would be blood on my watch, and I can’t do that.”
Instead she’ll go to other areas on the southern end of the Winds where her goats would not come in contact with bighorn sheep.
Herds at risk
Bighorn sheep number about 2 percent of what they were 160 years ago, Atlantic City biologist John Mionczynski said.
Mionczynski began studying bighorn sheep using pack goats in 1972 and is working with the University of Wyoming studying what could be causing these major die-offs.
The Whiskey Mountain bighorn sheep herd is one of the largest in the lower 48, but is still less than a third the size compared to 1989, because of outbreaks of pneumonia and low lamb survival.
“Now they are isolated populations and marginal in diversity,” he said. “So causing a die-off like the one in 1991 with the Whiskey Mountain bighorn sheep herd could reduce the herd enough to make it extinct.”
The Forest Service began looking into banning goat packing with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in 2007, said Joe Harper, wildlife biologist with the Shoshone National Forest.
Scientists have shown a clear link of disease transmission between domestic sheep and bighorn sheep, and biologists worry about a possible link with goats as well.
Forest Service officials are going through a forest plan revision, and plan to do a thorough disease risk assessment of pack goats. The assessment will either justify continuing the closure or allow for modifications such as limited use with guaranteed separation.
Harper worries about comingling of the animals by either a lost goat or bighorn sheep growing curious and walking up to the goats. Pneumonia, which is the primary cause of death in bighorn sheep, can be passed by nose-to-nose contact.
“We decided to close it right now until more research can be found,” Harper said. “We came down on the side of the bighorn sheep.”
Some pack goat users question the ban, believing that with the limited data available, the restriction is premature.
Charles Jennings, chairman of the land use committee for the North American Pack Goat Association, fought the Forest Service on the ban and hopes it will be repealed during the review process.
Born and raised in Wyoming, Jennings now lives in Utah and travels every summer to the Wind River Range with his pack goats to fish.
“We worm our goats and take very good care of them,” he said. “I don’t blame the U.S. Forest Service for placing a temporary closure because there are concerns, but prior to the revision we would like to see evidence on both sides.”
The closure affects some of the premier trout fishing in the Wind Rivers that is not accessible by horse, he said.
Jennings believes there is a lack of data showing that disease can spread from domestic goats to bighorn sheep. There were already management restrictions in place such as tying the goats up at night and having lead ropes with the goats on trails. He and the association would have preferred the Forest Service keep the restrictions instead of implement a closure.
While the chance of a goat spreading pneumonia is very slim, it still exists, Mionczynski said.
“You go into the mountains with a domestic goat and there’s a one-in-a-million chance you will cause a major die-off,” he said. “It’s like playing Russian roulette. Say you have a revolver with a million shots and only one bullet in it, if you have a million-in-one chance of shooting yourself in the head, would you do it? I wouldn’t.”
Mionczynski literally wrote the handbook on goat packing, “The Pack Goat,” and voluntarily stopped taking goats into the Whiskey Mountain portion of the Wind River Range in the mid-1990s because of the remote chance of spreading disease.
“The problem is, not everyone who packs a goat is a responsible packer, and there are accidents in the mountains,” he said. “Most people would go to extremes to keep them from getting loose, but some people don’t.”
If a goat is loose, it will run up the mountain where it is comfortable, which is also bighorn sheep habitat.
Goats do not naturally carry the pathogens that cause pneumonia in bighorn sheep, but it is possible a goat could contract the pathogen from a domestic sheep and then transmit it to a bighorn sheep.
“Your goat can get infected at the last minute and carry the disease a few days to then cause the extinction of a gene pool that’s been in the mountains for the last 10,000 years,” he said.
However, there is a chance in the next five to 10 years scientists will find a vaccine for the pathogen that goats can pass on to bighorn sheep. At that time, Mionczynski hopes the temporary ban will be lifted, once more allowing pack goats into the northern Wind River Range.