Elk hunting with pack animals: Part I
Written by M.D. Johnson
Robert Albers is no stranger to the country way of life.
Albers lives in Ennis, Montana, but is originally from Bend, Oregon — which might explain his use of the verb “cowboying” when I spoke with him recently. A professional businessman, with welding his trade, Albers is first and foremost an elk hunter. He spends several months each fall working as a guide for the Livingston, Montana-based Bull Basin Outfitters and is a partner of Slayer Calls.
I caught up with Albers in early June, which one would think is the off-season for an elk hunter.
“There really is no ‘off-season,’” he told me. “There’s always something to do to get ready for the season opener.”
One of those getting-ready things that’s near and dear to the former bull rider’s heart is working with his animals. And when I say animals, I mean his pack animals. Surprised? Shouldn’t be.
The heritage of pack animals in the U.S.
“It’s about getting into country that you simply can’t get into by foot. Or, if you can get in there on foot, you’re never going to get an elk out of there,” Albers said.
It’s all about the West, Albers went on to explain. A Western heritage that helped forge not only the lands west of the Rocky Mountains — heck, for that matter, west of the Missouri River — but the fledgling United States of America as a nation.
“Horses and pack mules. Trappers and mountain men. It’s THE West, and that’s what attracts a lot of people [to using pack animals] when they hunt elk,” Albers said.
All this talk about the West led me, a native Ohioan, to wonder if there was a history of using pack animals to hunt in my half of the country; that is, the Great Plains and the Midwest. Wouldn’t a well-mannered horse or mule be a godsend when it came to hauling a big whitetail buck out of the hills of Appalachia? Kentucky? West Virginia? The Blue Ridge Mountains?
“Oh, absolutely,” Albers agreed without hesitation. “You can go farther on a horse in a couple hours than you’re going to get on foot. Look at, say, western Kansas. If you’re hunting some of that public land, you can put everything on a horse and walk him in. Save yourself. Save your body a little bit.”
Pros and cons of hunting with pack animals
Pros and cons exist as part of essentially all aspects of everyday life, including using pack animals on an elk hunt.
“Again, you’re getting into country that most people aren’t getting into,” Albers said. “You’re more mobile. You can ride in a horse 13 miles in a couple hours, and if you want to jump country and work a drainage 5 miles away … well, you can do that.”
Packing an animal, too, ranks high on the list of advantages.
“You put a 700-pound bull on the ground,” he said, “and that’s a lot of meat and body heat that needs taken care of quickly and efficiently. If you’re in [far] and don’t have stock or a packer hired, you’re running the unnecessary risk of losing that animal.”
Hunting on horseback sounds perfect (at least to me!), but there are also challenges associated with using pack animals during elk season.
“Your stock has to come first,” Albers said. “If you want to be hunting at daylight, you’re feeding horses at 3 o’clock in the morning. Those animals have to be fed, watered, and cared for constantly. So there are the chores involved.”
But the challenges, as Albers calls them, don’t end when the chores are over.
“A dead-broke horse can turn into an absolute nightmare and the scariest thing alive when they get around blood,” he said. “There’s a safety risk anytime you go into the backcountry. With stock, that risk is compounded. It’s 10-fold now.”
In Elk hunting with pack animals: Part II, Albers discusses his personal pack animals and takes us step-by-step through a backcountry elk hunt with stock.