Note from First Lite: We will be featuring a Facebook Live discussion with Beau Baty from Wilderness Ridge Trail Llamas as well as First Lite's Ryan Callaghan and the author, Ross Copperman, on Thursday, July 20th at 1pm MDT. Tune in to First Lite's Facebook page at facebook.com/firstlite to learn more or ask questions. We'll also be posting the conversation to YouTube shortly after.
My interest in utilizing pack llamas for backcountry hunting first stemmed from the most worthless piece of stock in the history of the world, Janet Reno. Janet Reno was my own llama, a miserable beast so named for her uncanny resemblance to the now deceased Attorney General. A long story short, I acquired her from a stranger at a feed store for the price of one case of Keystone Light several years ago, when I was in the side business of raising sheep.
It should be noted that I was looking for a means to protect my real investment, several ewes and lambs that were under constant threat from coyotes. I read about guardian llamas—solo llamas introduced into a flock of sheep that would naturally protect their wooly counterparts from predators. As it turned out, Janet was useless. She would actually ignore the sheep all day and watched indifferently as coyotes killed three lambs in one month. Janet is no longer employed, but her size, stealth, subsistence entirely on natural fauna and rock solid footing did cause me to be intrigued by the idea of utilizing trained llamas for backcountry forays.
First Lite is based in the heart of the Rocky Mountains of central Idaho. I’ve never had an out-of-towner that didn’t describe big game hunting here as tortuous, soul-crushingly difficult or just plain impossible. I recently took a friend hunting who was a division one football player in college and he said that our hunting was way worse than anything he ever saw in his football days. Our neighboring peaks are generally around 9k to 11k in height--not the tallest by any means--but there is basically little-to-no terrain here that isn’t downright steep, as in lose your footing and roll 100 yards downhill steep. Couple this with the fact that we are surrounded by millions of acres of public wilderness and you can imagine pack stock in this state is a very nice thing to have.
Personally, I don’t have time for horses or mules and I doubt I could keep one healthy and fit. With a young daughter at home and a wife who commutes to and from the city every week, maintaining horses or mules was a non-starter. Llamas, on the other hand, are heralded by all for their ability to essentially take care of themselves—a hoof trimming here and there but no need for shoes and some brushing are all that is needed on a regular basis. Basically, their natural ability to stay comfortable in nearly any weather without hay nor even daily access to water made them an obvious candidate for the climate here and my specific time constraints. Having owned one, I knew they were very well suited for a relatively low maintenance lifestyle. What I wasn't so sure about was whether they were all worthless, uncooperative jerks like Janet or if they could potentially be useful.
Enter Beau and Kirsten Baty, a couple out of Idaho Falls that I was introduced to after speaking to about 20 different llama enthusiasts I found via the internet. When I described my needs, several of these folks told me that I had to speak with Beau Baty at Wilderness Ridge Trail Llamas, so I gave him a call. Turned out the Beau is not only a pack llama guru, but also a fourth generation outfitter, freakish backcountry hunter and most importantly, an all-around good guy.
Beau and I talked for quite a while after I told him I was looking to buy some pack llamas. To Beau’s credit, he strongly suggested I use a few for a season before committing to purchasing them. As it turns out, a truly well-trained and genetically suited llama (more on this from Beau later) costs about as much as a pack mule or the like, so doing your homework and research is critical. The $100 llamas you see on craigslist or maybe acquire in the parking lot of a feed store for a case of beer are about as genetically suited for packing as a ten year old Shitzu is for retrieving geese (We have a Shitzu—it’s a fruitless endeavor, trust me). Anyhow, Beau was very good at giving me the pros and cons of owning and using llamas in the backcountry and I immediately appreciated his honest, no B.S. approach to giving me the skinny. Ultimately we decided I’d rent some for a hunt or two that coming fall so that I could decide if they were for me. I couldn’t wait—the idea of some sure footed, cooperative, mild-mannered version of Janet Reno that actually carried my gear and had a positive contribution to my life in general was very intriguing indeed. But first, a word from the man, himself.
Q&A WITH BEAU BATY OF WILDERNESS RIDGE TRAIL LLAMAS
First Lite: What do you think the biggest advantage of hunting with llamas over traditional pack animals is?
WRTL: Simplicity is the biggest advantage. Llamas need care like any other animals but they are just simple. You can saddle a llama in 20 seconds, they forage on much less than other pack stock, they have a split toe and are more surefooted than other pack stock, they are quite and stealthy, they can pack more weight in proportion to their body weight than any other pack animals, they have day in and day out endurance that most traditional pack stock does not possess. If you want to go somewhere and you know you can hike there, you can get llamas there. Deadfall, rivers, rock ledges, scree fields, etc. If you can do it, they can do it. There are always exceptions but for the most part this holds true. Llamas have been helping man as beast of burden for 6000+ years in extremely tough conditions. There is nothing new about them; civilizations have flourished due to the capabilities and use of llamas.
WRTL:That is a tough question. I think the biggest disadvantage to llamas is that if you want to buy them, use them, or rent some there is very limited availability.
FL: Like most hunters, I've always hunted on foot with backpacks. How will hunting with llamas change how I hunt, for better and worse?
WRTL: Llamas allow you to carry less weight on your back. On your first day of a backpacking trip if you are going into a tough place to access you have spent a lot of energy getting to your spot. With llamas you can carry less, conserve your energy and move at a faster pace. When you get to your hunting area you are ready to go vs. being whipped from your hike in. If time is a problem for you then llamas are the ticket. For example if you have to be back to work on Monday morning and its Sunday afternoon you can hunt hard and try to tag out because you know you can pack out your game + your camp in one trip back to the trail head/truck. If you don’t have llamas and are in this same situation you might think twice about hunting to the last minute in case you might not make it back to work/home in time. With that same token being able to pack out your elk/deer/moose and camp out in one trip can be a huge benefit and relief for the backpack hunter. If you hunt in areas where you can hunt deer and elk and have the chance to harvest both in one trip llamas allow you to feasible pack out your game where as otherwise you might not have been able to harvest both species. Essentially llamas help you stay in the backcountry longer both in duration and seasonally they help you hunt harder by conserving energy because you are packing less in and out and you can eat better meals with less sodium, more calories and better cleaner proteins. Additionally they allow you to go farther into the backcountry on foot to areas where you normally wouldn't consider accessing due to the limited logistics backpack hunters face.
FL: What kind of terrain/topography are llamas best suited for? What kind is most difficult (i.e. down timber, snow, etc.)
WRTL: I have hunted/trekked with llamas in the spring with deep crusty snow and high flowing rivers, summer in the high alpine basins and granite peaks of the Wind Rivers, during the fall in the Cloud Lake burn that was full of terrible deadfall, and in the Frank Church during late November and December which in my opinion is some of the toughest country we have in the lower 48. We have tested them in lots of different terrain and they have excelled in all of these areas. A strong, athletic, well-bred and conditioned llama is unmatched in the backcountry. The toughest conditions for them are icy rocks, icy ledges and icy trails. When the deadfall gets impassable for you on two feet it usually is the same scenario for them.
FL: How often does it go off the rails? Many of my friends were expecting some minor disasters like unruly llamas or escapees and were shocked to hear we didn't have a single minor hickup in two whole trips. How often do problems really happen and what are they?
WRTL: Problems can always happen and you should try to understand what they are and how to mitigate them. As a rule of thumb if your llamas are in great shape and your saddle is on tight and panniers are balanced you should have a great trip. Understanding your llamas and their capabilities takes some time and narrows the margin for train wrecks. Train wrecks that we have ran into is the llamas saddling falling off on steep slopes, young llamas not knowing their roll and going left around a tree instead of right like the rest of the llamas in front of them or a llama jumping a creek vs. walking through it. Before we started packing with classics or Ccara llamas we had a very hard time getting our llamas in shape and the process was a pain. Llamas not built or bred for packing, which is most of the llamas you see, lay down on you and struggle to get into shape.
FL: Do you see llama hunting entering the mainstream over the next several years?
WRTL: I see more people getting into knowing where there food comes from and hunting. I also see folks in their 40’s and 50’s looking for a way to continue their passion of hunting the backcountry and hauling out their game more efficiently. In that regard I see llamas becoming more widespread and more of a tool despite not commonly being used now. Using llamas to haul payloads in and out of high elevations is not a new concept. The Inca culture perfected this over 6,000 years. We have just found a need for it since the 80’s and due to social media and more people exploring the backcountry, pack llamas are finding their way back to their roots as the choice beast of burden for humans.
FL: If someone wants to rent some llamas or book a trip with you, when should they contact you (how early are you booked out) and what do they need to know?
WRTL: I advise contacting us as soon as they can. Our season continues to book earlier and earlier each year. Once in a while we have a cancellation and can fit someone in during the season but this does not happen very often. As the draws come out we fill up in a matter of days. For the summer months we are booked by the end of February. For the fall months we are usually booked by May 1st.
FL: You recently purchased Jackson Hole Outfitters--are you planning on incorporating the llamas into this outfit? How does someone book a guided llama hunting trip with you?
WRTL: We will start operating in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness and Yellowstone National Park staring the summer of 2017. This new permit is allowing us to continue our dream and help people explore the wild areas of the Rocky Mountains. To book a trip they can go to the website or call/email us directly. We also operate in The Wind Rivers in Wyoming, the Wyoming Range and Gros Ventre Range. This area of Wyoming is one of a kind and is an amazing place to explore in the fall and summer months.
FL: Other than hunting, what other uses do pack llamas have for outdoorsmen/women?
I have gone on big shed horn hunting expeditions with them. For example we will take a week to ten days off work and head to Arizona/Nevada/Utah and use the llamas to hunt for sheds. The llamas carry our gear as we usually have a mobile camp and are always on the move. We load up the llamas in the morning with our camp and water then walk around all day looking for sheds. When we have about the llamas loaded with sheds we head back to the trailer and off load the antlers and then go back out.
Back in the day when we had more time on our hands we would use them to pack out petrified wood we would go and hunt for.
Each spring we clear trails in our outfitting areas as part of our permit and we also donate our time to help clear trail in the wilderness areas we like to visit. The llamas can carry your saws, axes, tools and camp. The llamas love getting out in the spring and eating the short grass coming through thawing ground.
Llamas have been used on many long races to shuttle water and equipment to certain stops along the path.
We have explored many lakes in the backcountry each summer that are remote and usually see little traffic. Areas like this really make for a fun family adventure when you are able to camp in luxury with friends or family not used to the back country.
My wife and I love to explore new trails, peaks, streams and high country lakes. Taking the llamas helps us stay longer and make loops vs in and out of the same trail-head.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2.
Ross Copperman is the VP of Sales at FLHQ. He will be hunting deer and elk with pack llamas this Fall.