By Kevin Farron
Hunting Bears with Llamas
“Man, these elk tracks weren’t here yesterday when we hiked in,” I whispered excitedly to my hunting companion.
“They literally walked right on top of our footprints last night. Crazy!”
Patrick shot me a look. “Those,” he said, “those are llama tracks, Kevin.”
More specifically, they were our llamas, well, Patrick’s llamas, that we both hiked in with the night before.
Some hunter I was.
Clearly, this was my first time hunting with llamas.
Moments later I redeemed myself when I spotted what we were searching for: a chocolate colored black bear feeding on an open hillside about three quarters of a mile away.
“He’s all yours if you want him,” I told Patrick.
As much as we want to ignore it – and even with such welcome distractions as spring turkeys, sheds, morels and black bears – we can’t. COVID-19 is on everyone’s minds. And believe it or not, it’s how I found myself finally embarking on an adventure I’ve been wanting to experience for years: a backcountry hunt with llamas.
Research on super, covid-fighting llama antibodies has been in the news lately. Turns out, llamas have smaller, more stable antibodies than humans called nanobodies. Being tinier, these antibodies are able to bring their little virus defenses to much smaller micro-battlefields, thereby better shielding organisms from the coronavirus. Sounds promising.
I was convinced; I needed to spend some time with llamas.
So I took a leap of faith and headed into the mountains with a friend-of-a-friend and his three trusty pack animals, Milton, Paco and Gus Gus. At the very least, hiking miles into the backcountry where we wouldn’t see another soul would definitely satisfy social distancing guidelines; and if I got lucky, I might be the recipient of a wad of super antibody llama spit. Plus, as my wife has reminded me repeatedly in the last few months, we were running dangerously low on bear fat. And with both of us working from home, I think she was ready for me to spend some time in the woods.
In what felt like a blind date, my new friend Patrick Sievert and I officially met for the first time about a mile from the onX shared waypoint that marked our preferred trailhead. There was so much fresh snow that we couldn’t access the parking area; our backcountry adventure would have to start a bit lower in elevation than we’d planned.
In my experience, hunting buddies are hard to come by. I have a lot of friends who hunt, but not a lot of friends who I hunt with, or would really want to hunt with. The qualities of someone I enjoy spending time with at home or on the river are different than those needed on a hunt. It’s important to share similar mindsets, methods and motivations with your hunting companions, especially in the backcountry. Roughly equal levels of physical fitness, tolerance for discomfort and positive attitudes are all traits you need to match up. So agreeing to hunt with a relative stranger was a risk, but heck, it was just a few days. And judging by his Instagram credentials, Patrick could hang. I called a few mutual friends and he passed the reference checks. We talked a few times. We’d both been taking the coronavirus precautions seriously, and we both were comfortable spending some time together in the woods.
Plus, he had llamas.
The last bear I killed was up over an 8,500-foot mountain pass and required a five-mile packout. The seven-year-old fall boar was hefty and ready for the winter. That was in September of 2018, and I still don’t think my hunting buddy on that trip or my body has forgiven me. When I look at that bear on the wall, my lower back twinges.
Llamas, you say? Tell me more.
Capable of carrying 25% of their bodyweight, these 300-400lb animals can handle packing out a quartered up black bear and hide with ease. They also provide some at-home comforts deep in the backcountry, which were greatly appreciated on this hunt after a May snowstorm dumped more than a foot of fresh, heavy snow on our mountain destination just days before our arrival.
While Patrick and I carried our packs and rifles with the typical day-hunting gear, the three llamas carried our camp supplies, food and a few liters of water. Milton, the elder statesmen of the trio, had years of experience as a commercial packer under his panniers. He walked step-in-step with us as we headed into the mountains. Waking up to 22 degrees the first morning, our made-in-America Seek Outside tipi and the extra warm sleeping bags that Paco had carried in the night before were greatly appreciated.
Llamas are surprisingly low maintenance. “As long as you don’t let them escape,” Patrick explained. “There shouldn’t be any issues.”
Once we got to the ridge we called home for the weekend, we staked down the llama leads, giving them a 40-foot circle to graze, sleep and do llama things. Milton, Paco and Gus Gus were perfectly content.
Llamas are camelids, meaning they, like camels, can go for longer periods of time without water than other stock like horses or goats. Just in case, we melted snow in a packable water bowl for the llamas, but they didn’t drink once in the three days we were hunting. And the May sun melted enough snow on the south-facing ridge we were on to keep the llamas happy while nibbling on some fresh grass. It was time to find a bear doing the same.
"The only other bear I've shot was jet black,” Patrick explained to me during the cold and wet hike in. “I'd love to find a chocolate one."
The next day, I spotted this bear through my 10x42 Vortex Razors. It was just the color phase that Patrick was after. "It's all yours if you want him," I told Patrick.
I was fully supportive, and we immediately started to close the distance.
As we hiked closer, we put eyes on the bear two more times. He was moving up. We had to hustle. We kept to a creek bottom to cover our scent and our sound. As we started climbing the hill the bear was on, the winds kept swirling and shifting. Not good. We made it halfway up before realizing the wind was no longer in our favor; we quickly stopped our trajectory and cruised around the hill for a better approach. You can trick a bear's eyes and ears but not his nose. We weren't taking any chances.
With the wind in our faces now, we crested the knob where we last had eyes on the bear and Patrick spotted his dark brown back feeding less than 100-yards away. I took cover behind a tree as Patrick backed down, went 30-yards to my left and crawled up to some rocks, shifting his Stone Glacier pack as a rest. We watched for ten minutes as the bear slowly fed out. Considering the distance he'd covered and the open hillside we'd watched him traverse, we were extremely confident no cubs were with him - the surest way to assure a legal spring bear in Montana. Once the bear was broadside, Patrick pulled the trigger. The bear spun, ran twenty yards, paused, and tumbled to his death, just feet away from where he had been feeding.
We took our time to save every ounce of bear meat and not to nick up the hide. An early May bear, his hide was thick, but there was virtually no fat on him. It's no wonder he was out feeding in the middle of the day.
We packed the meat down to the trail, an easy downhill jaunt of 500-yards or so. There was still snow on the ground; perfect hanging conditions. We hung the quarters in the shaded trees and draped the hide over a log before dropping a waypoint and heading back to camp where the llamas contently waited.
And that was it. We were still miles from our trucks with many snow drifts to slog through, but the heavy pack out on our backs at least, was done; the llamas would take it from here.
The next day, we packed up camp, loading the llamas and headed for the meat cache. We easily slipped the quartered-out meat into the panniers and strapped the hide onto the back of Gus Gus before continuing our hike out. I was a little worried that the llamas would be freaked out at the sight or scent of the dead bear, but, per usual, they didn’t’ seem to care. Having the quarters and the hide fully enclosed in game bags might have helped as well.
The llamas made this the easiest backcountry pack out I've ever been a part of, without question.
At age 34 with one back surgery already under my belt, I know that I won’t be able to pack big game out of the backcountry forever. But my lust for public land, do-it-yourself hunting adventures won’t fade anytime soon; llamas seem like a relatively simple way for public land owners like myself to continue to chase our passions as we age or deal with back issues.
Now I just need to learn the difference between elk and llama tracks before my next opportunity to social distance with these camelids and my new hunting friend.
Kevin Farron is the Montana Chapter Coordinator for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He lives in Missoula, MT with his wife.