Pensions for Pack Animals
- Story available at http://www.billingsgazette.net/articles/2007/07/01/news/state/54-pension.txt
Published on Sunday, July 01, 2007.
Last modified on 7/1/2007 at 2:23 am
Sort-of pensions for pack animals
GREAT FALLS - U.S. Forest Service pack animals that have outlived their usefulness in the backcountry are finding the good life in the pastures and back 40s of some north-central Montana ranches and hobby farms.
Horses and mules that once hauled supplies and tools and rangers for the Rocky Mountain Ranger District of the Lewis and Clark National Forest now help kids learn to ride or simply hang out as pets after decades of Forest Service work.
In May, three horses and eight mules were adopted out after years.
Joan Farmer, of Great Falls, adopted a 28-year-old mule named Rose.
"She is adorable," Farmer said. "My family has a farm out of Geraldine and I had two old horses. One of them had to be put down and we were looking for a companion for the remaining horse and a young saddle horse that I ride.
"It is a wonderful program. These animals are so well-trained. They have been at the fair and in parades. My mule was in good shape. She is graying a little."
It wasn't always happy trails for such critters. When a packhorse or mule was no longer worth keeping, a long-faced Forest Service worker would trailer the stock to the nearest sale barn. It was a sad trip for both packer and pack animal that often ended at the cannery.
"Some have put in literally 25 years of work for the American people, so we get pretty attached to them," said Kraig Lang, a wilderness ranger on the Rocky Mountain District. "We feel they have put in a lifetime of service. Literally I would be in tears walking these animals out of the trailer into the sale. It was one of the worst duties you could be assigned to - the guy who had to drive the trailer full of animals down to the sale.
"When we took animals to Western Livestock Auction, we used to get a pretty decent price. We would recoup about a third of the value of replacing that animal. Those prices have dropped to the point that the last time we took a white mule we got $13 for it. That was two years ago. It cost us more to get the animal there than we got out of it. On top of that we know and acknowledge some of those animals were ending up at the slaughterhouse."
But Lang and Ian Bardwell, stock manager for the Forest Service in Choteau, found a government loophole big enough to drive a pack string through.
Since the pack animals are government property and cannot be given to private individuals, Bardwell and Lang donated the stock to Bright Eyes animal shelter in Choteau, which set up adoption of the animals by private individuals.
"I stole the idea from a gal down on the Bitterroot," Bardwell said. "I worked with the regional office in Great Falls and found a code that allows us to donate our critters through a nonprofit agency.
"You hate to spend several years or a whole career with an animal and then send them down the road to get their heads knocked off. This was an opportunity to give them a retirement home. They have several years of good living in them but they won't be pounding down the trail 50 to 60 miles a week. Now they might get a couple trips a summer or light riding in back pasture or be a baby sitter for folks who have younger animals."
A newspaper ad drew 200 responses. From those, about 50 people made serious applications to adopt the animals.
Forest Service staffers winnowed the applicants down.
"We had folks write us a letter telling us their intent for use of the critter, what facilities they have and other animals," Bardwell said. "They are kind of a herd animal and we gave preference to those folks who were trying to expose kids or grandkids to horses or mules. We have the interest of trying to get young folks interested in stock, natural resources and outdoors and National Forest lands."
Trish King, of Fairfield, adopted Snip, a bay gelding believed to be a 24-year-old Walker cross.
"My kids are so happy. Snip is such a wonderful animal," she said.
King has keeps other stock on her 5½ acres near Fairfield and her mother keeps stock, too, on another 22 acres.
"He fits in very well," she said of the adoptee. "He is a therapeutic horse for my kids, who are 5 and 4. For little kids, putting them on a rank horse is not a good idea. Snip is very mellow and very gentle."
King has had Snip since the day before Easter.
"This horse is just for pleasure," King said. "We had to write a letter stating what we would use him for, what living conditions would be like, just basic care of him.
"I think he has given me and my kids more than I have given him."
Jack O'Conner, a retired rancher at Raynesford, took a pair of mules that the Forest Service did not want to separate.
"They get used by the grandkids. One of the mules is kind of a leader and the other is a follower. You put one of the older kids on the driver and two or three that don't ride so well on the follower and you turn them lose and let them go," O'Conner said.
The mules, Kate and Dolly, are 21 and 28 years old.
"When we got them home, I kept them in close until they got used to the area. We let them out into a pasture that hasn't been used for two or three years so there is a lot of grass.
"I said, 'Let's halter these girls and lead them around the fence line.' We did and if speed is any indication they are in pretty good shape."
O'Conner says he has two other horses.
"They are pretty much retired, too. Kind of like everything else around this ranch. I'm retired, the mules are retired and the horses are retired."
Lang says there are 50 to 55 government-owned animals on the Rocky Mountain Ranger District and in the summer another 20 to 25 personal animals used by their owners.
Bardwell says the ranger district probably won't have other animals for adoption for several years.
"It is something I had been putting off," Bardwell said. "We had critters we were kind of nursing along, like one old mule that did three parades last year. He walked down Main Street three times but we have a hard time justifying keeping a whole pasture full of critters around that we cannot use."
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