Llamas and goats are an increasingly popular means of packing into the backcountry, but one that a major conservation organization fears could threaten wildlife.
The Wild Sheep Foundation’s 2020 Vision’s call to prohibit the use of pack llamas and goats in sheep country due to disease concerns has been met with staunch opposition from llama and goat advocates, who believe the threats are unfounded. But it is that uncertainty coupled with the propensity for wild sheep to suffer die-offs from disease that the foundation stakes much of its position on.
“What we’re saying is, let’s not roll the dice and take our chances,” said Kevin Hurley, WSF vice president of conservation and operations. “Don’t take them where you think you’ll be in bighorn country – it’s a common-sense request we think has a lot of merit to it.”
Disease transmission between domestic and wild sheep poses a significant challenge for wildlife managers. Once in a wild herd, bacteria cause die-offs and often suppress populations due to low lamb survival. With separation the only proven method of stopping infection, both biologists and wool growers have taken steps to keep domestic and wild sheep apart.
Although research into transmission from domestic goats is less extensive, goats can carry certain pathogens that concern biologists, and pen studies suggest parasite transmission. Domestic goats were also linked to a non-fatal eye infection outbreak in Arizona in 2003.
WSF points to a recently released risk assessment for the use of llamas and alpacas in sheep country contracted by the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. While the assessment cites little research and no confirmed transmission to wild animals, it concludes that the unknown is not proof of a lack of risk, and that banning llamas and alpacas is the most effective way to reduce that risk.
Advocates for pack llamas and goats believe WSF pushes an unproven agenda.
“They cannot remove their emotion from it and sit back and look at the facts,” said Curtis King, president of the North American Pack Goat Association. “The science isn’t there.”
King’s group and WSF recently collaborated on Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, with planning calling for the prohibition of pack goats in several areas of prime sheep habitat. Despite agreeing to the restriction, NAPGA objected to the science it was based on, saying it does not support the conclusion the pack goats pose a threat, and King is adamant that the ban not become a trend across the West.
King detailed the differences in pack goats and other domestic goats. Selective breading makes pack goats a specialized and valuable animal. Training takes about three years, and they undergo vaccinations and veterinarian checks. King believes a health certificate and best practices are sufficient to allow pack goats in sheep country.
“You’re not going to find a scientific study to date, even though they’re so desperately trying to find it, that says pack goats have spread disease to wild sheep,” King said. “This is not about pack goats giving diseases to bighorn sheep. It’s an education and awareness issue. Why would we not want to work together on this issue? To me, when the science isn’t there, it sounds like bullying and harassment.”
Hurley agrees with practices including advanced health screening and isolation until use, but notes that a clean bill of health is only good as long as goats don't come in contact with a potential disease vector.
“Once they come in contact with something else that can be a carrier, to me that health certification becomes invalid,” he said. “To us the bottom line is if these animals can carry the same pathogens that have been shown to be very lethal to wild sheep, you’re taking a chance.”
Stan Ebel has packed llamas for years and helps run the website http://packllamas.org/. The website is dedicated to combating attempts to ban llamas and their cousins from public lands.
For Ebel, basic biological differences between llamas with sheep and goats make the llama ban a parallel rather than a linked issue with pack goats.
“From a disease standpoint, llamas are the least threat,” he said. “They’re a camelid, they’re not ruminants like sheep and goats and they just don’t get the same diseases. It’s similar to horses and they don’t consider them a threat.”
Pen studies have not linked disease transmission between llamas and sheep, and the diseases cited as concerning are rare and typically fatal in llamas, he said. Ebel further questions the timing of WSF’s 2020 vision, noting that the organization began pushing for a ban before publication of the British Columbia risk assessment.
“Just like you aren’t going to take a sick horse into the mountains, you aren’t going to take a sick llama,” he said. “If you go into the assessment and the documents it’s based on, it doesn’t pass the sniff test.”
Ebel is not shy about questioning WSF’s advocacy role and funding and believes that current research is more than adequate.
“The Wild Sheep Foundation has way too much contact and control with these wildlife management agencies,” he said. “I hear that it needs to be researched and studied. Well, there are no tests to develop, nothing to mitigate if they don’t have the disease. It’s trying to prove a negative for something that hasn’t happened and won’t happen.”
Ebel believes that llamas, which have some advantages over horses or mules in accessing sheep country, pose a threat to horse outfitting and that may be bringing pressure from WSF’s outfitter members.
“To me, that’s a very phony statement of claims,” Hurley said. “Hunting comes as a byproduct of sound management, and these are diseases that wildlife folks say there is a reason for concern.”
Hurley also questions the value of some of the pen studies, underscoring that many occurred two or three decades ago and evolving research continues to explore what is and is not known about the diseases.
WSF wants to see research that will prove or disprove pack goats or llamas as disease transmitters and is unwavering in its call for caution until it sees that research in a scientific journal.
“We do not have a vendetta, but we do advocate for wild sheep, and the prevailing science says there is a risk there,” said Kurt Alt, WSF conservation director. “Research advances that knowledge, and we are open to any and all peer-reviewed scientific literature.”