March 13, 2003 11:00 pm
TRAIL PARTNERS:  Jim Byars on the trail with his goats.  ().
TRAIL PARTNERS: Jim Byars on the trail with his goats. ().

Stories by Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Domestic goats are becoming an increasingly popular pack animal on trails in the West.


The reasons, like the number of items a goat will eat, are numerous.

Jim Byars of La Grande understands this well. Byars has been packing with goats in Northeast Oregon for about two years. He has found that goats offer several advantages over other animals used for packing such as horses, mules and llamas.

A major advantage is that goats are much easier to transport because they are smaller.

"You don't need heavy trailers,'' Byars said.

All he needs is pick up with a canopy.

"They love to travel. They get excited when they see they are going on a trip,'' Byars said. "I tell them load, they hop in and off we go."

Byars does not have to bring food for his goats since there is plenty for them to graze on in forests.

On the trail goats always prove to be adept at trekking though difficult terrain that horses, llamas and mules dislike. In fact, goats are drawn to high and difficult places with ledges.

"When we go through ledge areas I move them through as quickly as possible,'' Byars said. "It makes me queasy when they stick their necks over the ledge and look.''

Byars hikes with his goats attached to halters and a line. He tries to stay ahead of them.

"If they are behind I feel I have more control,'' he said.

His goats often stop to graze and then run to catch up to him.

"They always keep an eye on me,'' said Byars, a certified public accountant.

Goats are attached to people but they will run off if given the chance. Byars will never forget the time he was at Red Mountain Lake in the Elkhorns. He untied his three male goats to let them run for half an hour. They ran off into steep rugged terrain and Byars did not find them until five days later.

"It was a five-day ordeal,'' Byars said.

He had let his animals loose because he had read that experienced goat packers often do this.

"I certainly will never do that again,'' he said.

Within each group of goats is what is known as a leader and a social director. The social director is responsible for keeping track of all the goats in the group. Byars' goat Rocky Top fills both roles.

"If you have a problem all you have to do is get a hold of him and generally the rest will come along,'' the La Grande goat packer said.

His goats get jealous when he gives them attention. Often when Byars is petting one of his goats another will come and try to bump the other animal away.

"Several times I've been in the way and have been knocked over,'' Byars said.

Goats can pack up to 40 to 50 pounds of gear each. Byars likes them best, though, for their companionship.

"They are definitely company,'' he said.