Wyoming Wildlife - August 2023

Powerful Packers

Lander Region Fisheries Biologist Paul Gerrity and Fisheries Technician James Anderson load fish-netting equipment on the back of a llama in the Wind River Range.

Llamas pack the punch for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to conduct backcountry fish sampling

Chris Martin
8/1/2023 12:00:05 AM

A photo from 1899 of Albert Nelson, the first Wyoming game warden, is so evocative that anyone who has sat beside a campfire can almost smell it. Nelson is crouching over a campfire cooking his breakfast. The morning light illuminates a stream of campfire smoke rising through the trees as four horses look on.

Albert Nelson, the first Wyoming game warden, cooks beside a campfire in 1899. (WGFD Photo)

I first saw the photo of Nelson after starting with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department in 2017. A photo may be worth 1,000 words, but for me, that image inspired 1,000 questions. Where was the photo taken? What were his duties after finishing breakfast? What was it like to be the only warden patrolling an area the size of Wyoming?

As a new hire, the photo made me curious about how frequently Game and Fish still uses horses. Clearly, horses were a necessity for Nelson, but does Game and Fish frequently use them today considering all of the technological advancements since 1899? I knew pack animals still had their place at Game and Fish, but I was surprised to learn horses and mules aren’t the only animals used for packing. Game and Fish personnel also use llamas.

Blast from the past
The use of llamas was a bit unexpected, but I wasn't a stranger to the animals. I grew up in southwest Wyoming, and my family loved to recreate in the Wind River Range outside Lander. The Lander Llama Company bunkhouse was a launching point for some of our family vacations.

The author, right, feeds a llama at the Lander Llama Company in 1998. (Photo by Pete Martin)

I was about 6 years old on my first visit to the Lander Llama Company when one of the owners asked me if I wanted to walk a llama. As he brought the llama over, I thought it was big and intimidating. I was hesitant, but how could I turn down my first opportunity to walk a llama? One step later, I expanded the list of animals I had taken on a walk.

It was surprisingly easy to lead an animal more than twice my size. Upon my return with the llama, my family asked if it had tried to spit on me. My expression must have made it clear that llamas’ notoriety for spitting on people was news to me. The owners of the Lander Llama Company explained their llamas were extensively trained so they wouldn’t spit on people. I was relieved and thankful that my llama walk went smoothly.

Twenty-six years after my initial visit, I was in disbelief that I was walking llamas once again, but this time it was part of my duties with Game and Fish. The Lander Region fisheries crew picked up the pack animals from the Lander Llama Company for a fish sampling project in the Popo Agie Wilderness, and I was along to capture photos and videos of the work. The crew would camp in the backcountry for five nights to sample the alpine lakes in the Silas Drainage of the Wind River Range, and the llamas would pack the gear. I could already see parallels between the photos I might capture and the one I had seen of Nelson and the horses. As I thought of the photo, one more question crossed my mind — why llamas?

Becky Barbier, fisheries technician for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, fastens equipment to a llama named Crescent in preparation for a fish survey pack trip into the Wind River Range. (Photo by Chris Martin)

Paul Gerrity, a Game and Fish fisheries biologist in the Lander Region, said horses may have a number of advantages in the backcountry, but the rocky terrain of the Wind River Range favors llamas.

“We load them up every day and we can take them up steep, rocky country,” Gerrity said. “We can take them into thick timber, and we can get a lot more gear to where we need to get it for these backcountry wilderness surveys, especially when we go off-trail. That’s a good thing because the vast majority of the lakes are off-trail. Having llamas really helps us do more work."

He added that llamas are low maintenance, too.

Basically, I can get to camp and stake them up in a meadow and they don't need to drink much water,” he said. “I'll offer them water every day, but they usually don't drink. Every couple of days I'll move them to fresh grass. Llamas allow me to spend a lot more time doing fish and wildlife surveys and a lot less time taking care of livestock."

James Anderson, fisheries technician for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, deploys a Swedish gill net in Island Lake in the Silas Drainage of the Wind River Range. (Photo by Chris Martin/WGFD)

Moving equipment like pack rafts, scales, measuring boards and nets from lake to lake without llamas would be difficult. Llamas make it easier to get the equipment where it needs to be. It was my first time taking llamas on a pack trip, and I soon found they add some entertainment.

Each llama had its own personality and their sounds seemed to subtly convey their mood. My favorite was a black and white llama named Wando. Wando had an attitude when he was standing still, instead preferring to be on the move. His skill on the trail made him an asset. At one point, Wando easily made a leap across a big creek, but the other llamas took some coaxing. Eventually they all made it safely across, but none of the others made it look as simple as Wando did.

Occasionally the llamas walked slower for seemingly no reason. We could remedy pace problems by changing the order of the llamas. It seems llamas have coworkers they’d rather work closely with, and they aren’t as cooperative if placed out of their preferred order. Overall it was easy to work with them. I felt they were easier to load and unload with gear compared to horses. They covered steep, rocky terrain and were able to get gear close to some of the more remote lakes tucked into rugged country.

High-county fish sampling
Efficiency is important for completing all of the sampling work because the process takes time. Each sampling effort involves capturing fish so biologists can get information about the characteristics of a fish population. Biologists deployed packable gill nets from pack rafts. The gill nets are like an underwater spider web; the fish can't detect the net and get entangled once they swim into it. The nets are about 150 feet long and six feet high. Biologists can sink the net to sample the bottom of a lake or they can make them float to sample the top. Gerrity said sinking nets are the most efficient way to catch fish in alpine lakes.

Lander Region Fisheries Biologist Paul Gerrity prepares a data sheet to track length and weight of fish sampled as a technician pulls a gill net on Lower Silas Lake. (Photo by Chris Martin/WGFD)

The amount of time nets are set depends on the data biologists need in order to determine if objectives for a lake are being met. Biologists might pull the nets after a few hours or leave them overnight before they weigh and measure the fish caught in the net. In some cases, biologists will pull otoliths from fish, which are hard, bony structures from the inner ear, to gain insight into the age structure of a fish population. The growth rings of the otoliths show the fish’s age, similar to the growth rings on a tree.

It was impressive to see the work that goes into keeping tabs on the fish populations in alpine lakes deep in Wyoming’s wilderness areas. It made me nostalgic for the fishing trips my family went on in the Wind River Range when I was a kid, especially with the use of llamas from Lander Llama company. As someone who fished the lakes over the past few decades with my family, it was great to see how the work contributed to the success of the fisheries.

Fisheries technicians pack up a gill net after completing fish sampling at Island Lake. (Photo by Chris Martin/WGFD)

I don’t remember golden trout fishing being remarkable during my early visits to the Winds. Golden trout weren’t stocked from 1993 through 2005 — the prime years of my childhood — because a wildfire compromised the quality of the wild golden trout broodstock in Surprise Lake in Sublette County. Story Hatchery successfully spawned captive golden trout in 2007, so stocking resumed in 2010 and is done every two years. The report from last year's sampling in the Silas Drainage shows the golden trout in Thumb Lake are in great condition and range in length from about nine to 14 inches. Gerrity thinks it's currently the golden age of golden trout fishing in the Wind River Range.

Similar to how the revival of Wyoming’s wildlife populations started with a dedicated warden with some pack animals, I couldn’t help but see the parallels to the work of the fisheries biologist’s backcountry trip in the Wind River Range with llamas. While technology has improved since 1899, along with the precision of our data collection methods and wildlife management techniques, it’s interesting to know how big of a role pack animals still play in our work 124 years later; the pack animals just aren’t always horses.

— Chris Martin is the visual communications supervisor for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.


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