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Montana pack mules transcend century-old tradition


This stock-ranch remains a vital arm of the U.S. Forest Service in maintaining public lands


Marc Haskins drove a John Deere tractor loaded with two round bales of hay down a gravel road into a pasture known as “donkey alley.” It was a brisk Montana morning in March, and nearly 200 U.S. Forest Service-owned mules and horses greeted him to receive their morning feed.

Haskins, the USFS’ Ninemile ranch manager for more than a decade, knows the land and livestock well. Laura Johnson, USFS resources assistant for the Ninemile Remount Depot and historic ranger station, followed closely behind Haskins in an agency truck.

“It’s pretty unusual to have this number of mules and horses together at once,” said Johnson. “They are pretty friendly, though, and they get along well — especially since they know they’ll have plenty of hay coming.”

Johnson explained that land managers still need access to wilderness for trail maintenance, bridge building, and fighting small wildfires, so this ranch is essential for boarding and feeding equine livestock that seasonal crews use on trails in the summer.

“The horses and mules that spend their winters at Ninemile are used almost exclusively for maintaining the remote, roadless spaces,” said Johnson, referring to places like the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area — one of Montana’s 16 federally designated wilderness areas.

More than 90 years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture purchased this western Montana ranch in the Ninemile valley. Managers originally used the ranch as a Remount Depot to supply saddle horses (like mustangs), mules, and packers to people in the region, as well as to board pack mules that assisted wildland firefighters. Today, USFS managers still use the 5,000-acre ranch — including 200 acres of irrigated pasture and 200 acres of irrigated hayfields — as a winter boarding site for more than 200 horses and mules from 15 ranger districts across northern Idaho and Montana. A few ranchers work year-round on irrigation systems and other tasks like harrowing, fencing, re-seeding, fertilizing, winter feeding, and vaccinating livestock. And a dozen seasonal ranch crews spend time on fertilizing, hay purchase, shoeing, and vaccine and dewormer contracts.

The livestock on the ranch remains critical to maintaining public lands. Mule pack trains assist crews with trail maintenance — keeping trails on more than 3 million acres of land open for public recreation — and providing access in roadless areas of the backcountry.

USFS resources assistant Laura Johnson interacts with a mule in a pasture at Ninemile ranch. “The work is rarely boring,” she said.

Ninemile ranch history

USDA animal packers have used mules (the sturdy yet sterile offspring of a horse and a donkey) as their preferred pack animal for more than a century. In the summer of 1930, USDA managers bought a run-down ranch in the Ninemile valley in western Montana to breed and board pack mules and horses, all with the purpose of helping the Forest Service fight fires, provide recreation opportunities to the public, protect land and resources, and preserve water flows.

That same year, workers mowed 200 acres of hay, irrigated fields, and built corrals.

“Historically, this was all irrigated by a series of canals and ditches,” said USFS animal packer Robin Connell. If you walk around the compound today, there are thousands of hand-dug ditches. It was a very archaic way of irrigating.”

But it was all worth it in the coming years as the Ninemile ranch became a more valuable resource for the region. Amid America’s Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration formed the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 to improve public lands and encourage people to get out and enjoy the nation’s natural resources. That’s when the ranch started to thrive.

The Ninemile CCC camp (one of the largest in the country) had three companies with 200 men each. The men lived year-round in camps a few miles north of Remount Depot headquarters. All 600 men worked during the winter clearing rocks from pastures, driving mules, and building miles of “jack” fences — a traditional rustic style of fencing with three rails on one side and a nub rail on the other to prevent animals from getting under the fence — using wood from lodgepole pine trees.

By 1935, CCC crews had successfully planted hay fields, completed buildings, and brought in electrical lines. Ranch managers originally worked with 1,500 head of pack stock during the mule era, when wildland firefighters depended on the animals to transport gear.

By the 1950s, wildland firefighters replaced pack mules with airplanes — pilots could get small airplanes with smokejumpers at fire scenes much faster.

A USFS manager in an old Region One press release noted: “Services formerly rendered by the Forest Service Remount Depot at Ninemile will be considerably reduced commencing in July … in line with a program of economy aimed at reducing government expenditures.”

Although the mule era ended for wildland firefighting, the USDA still needed pack mules to help crews build bridges, maintain trails, and get supplies into wilderness areas — they kept a handful of mules and horses on the ranch and sold off the surplus.

Hundreds of mules and horses wait in line in a series of chutes to receive their fall vaccinations. Typically, 200 head of USFS mules and horses winter at the Ninemile Ranger Station, coming from 15 ranger districts across northern Idaho and Montana.

Modern ranching operations

Ranchers work year-round on the Ninemile ranch to keep up with 5,000 acres of land, including the irrigated pasture and hayfields.

In spring, harrowing, fencing, re-seeding, weed spraying, and work on the irrigation systems are priorities for Haskins, the ranch manager. And irrigation on the ranch is unique.

Each year Haskins depends on natural resources, like snowpack (a seasonal accumulation of slow-melting packed snow) from the Ninemile Ranger District’s highest point, Ch-paa-qn (pronounced Cha-pa-kwin) Peak. This mountain peak sits at 7,996 feet above sea level and feeds a small creek known as Stoney Creek that flows thousands of feet to the ranch, which sits at nearly 3,200 feet above sea level.

“We use a gravitational flow system out of Stoney Creek,” said Haskins. “Due to snow levels, that creek could go low before we’re done with the irrigation season. We depend on that snowpack for our hay yields.”

Without existing water rights, watering fields on the ranch simply couldn’t happen.

“Water rights in Montana are different from a lot of places in the U.S.,” Johnson said. “Out here we can pull water right out of the creek to irrigate our fields.”

Water lines are also a little different on the ranch. In additional to wheel lines, there are several hand lines that still exist in Ninemile’s irrigation system.

“Some of the hills and contours of the land aren’t adequate for wheel lines, so we set hand lines in the best places possible,” said Haskins.

Each quarter-mile-long hand line is made up of about 30 sections of 40-foot aluminum pipe. During early summer, workers move those lines by hand every day.

But wheel lines are preferable, especially because they are time-savers. Since wheel lines are geared with a motor, one ranch worker can move an entire quarter-mile-long line at the motor head.

“Updating to a conventional irrigation system conserves a lot of water,” Connell said. “It spreads the water more evenly across the pastures and you get higher yields.”

A typical hay yield for the ranch is 350 to 500 tons, and it’s cut, bailed, and stored on site. The mules and horses, roughly 100 of each, eat around 400 tons a year. Haskins supplements any deficit with square alfalfa-blend bales and round bales purchased locally.

A mule receives its fall vaccination at the Ninemile Ranger Station.

Livestock care

Feeding livestock is just one facet of ranch operations. Mules and horses require a lot of care, and every year, more than 200 horses and mules from 15 ranger districts across northern Idaho and Montana winter on the ranch.

“In fall, the stock from across several regions begin to arrive. Ninemile staff deworms the animals and clips ‘hair brands’ on their hips, which indicate which district each animal belongs to,” said Johnson.

Typically, the mules and horses winter at Ninemile from November until the end of April. When it’s time to vaccinate, ranchers run-in the mules and horses to deworm and vaccinate them using a series of corrals and shoots. Groomers “roach” mule manes — shaving the hair down to keep the mane out of the way for the pack saddles to properly fit — and clip horse bridle paths.

Ranch crews also have to keep track of a lot of tack.

“Each animal gets fitted for their own gear,” said Haskins. “Pack mules have a harness on them, which is a little bit more in depth than the riding saddles — primarily breast collars and britchens that keep the saddle and load from moving forward.”

Once ranch crews fit an animal, they stamp name tags into the leather of the saddles so they can use the same saddle for the animal without having to adjust it.

“This one is Rogers’,” said Haskins, pointing to a dark brown 40-pound Decker saddle in the Ninemile tack room.

There’s also a lot of horseshoeing to be done, but most of that happens off-ranch at different ranger districts by contract farriers. Each animal gets shod four to six times a year, with the first round starting in April and the last one with the removal of the shoes in the fall when the trail projects are done.

USFS Ninemile ranch manager Mark Haskins talks about mule and horse saddles in the tack room of the Ninemile Ranger Station.

Stock and public lands

Most of the animals work in recreation, trails, and wilderness where chainsaws and motorized vehicles can’t go. The mules pack in crosscut saws, food, water, tents, fencing and a myriad of other gear for trail crews to use during the summer. The main goal of these seasonal USFS crews is to keep public lands open for people to enjoy.

According to the Wilderness Act passed in 1964 and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, section 4(c) states: “Except as specifically provided for in this Act, and subject to existing private rights, there shall be no commercial enterprise and no permanent road within any wilderness area designated by this Act and, except as necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act (including measures required in emergencies involving the health and safety of persons within the area), there shall be no temporary road, no use of motor vehicles, motorized equipment or motorboats, no landing of aircraft, no other form of mechanical transport, and no structure or installation within any such area.”

“The Northern Region Pack Train has backhauled cabin wrap [used to protect structures from flames and embers] and firefighting supplies and has been dispatched to pack in supplies and wrap a backcountry bridge,” said Johnson, who has recently focused on heavy trail maintenance on Stateline Trail, which runs the mountains between Montana and Idaho.

“Stock aren’t just used for the sake of tradition or because it’s nice to do — they are critical to our work,” said Johnson.

Billy is Johnson’s favorite mule and part of the Ninemile District String. He’s a little blood bay mule.

“Twice he’s faced mountain lions without flinching and then kept going down the trail after they ran off,” she said.

Another favorite mule of Johnson’s is Ruthie, a stout sorrel molly mule in the regional pack train string.

One year while Johnson was riding in the University of Montana Homecoming parade, she found herself in the wrong spot and had to make a way to a different street straight through the farmers market.

“Ruthie didn’t even steal one cabbage that day,” said Johnson. “We were proud of her.”

A U.S. Department of Agriculture sign sits at the entrance of the ranch in front of historical white buildings built by Civilian Conservation Corps companies in the 1930s.

Ninemile compound

The white historic buildings built by CCC crews back in the 1930s are still used today as offices for a district ranger, trail crews, and a silviculturist. The compound is also part tourist destination, with a visitors center alongside the working ranch.

The Ninemile Ranger Station is on the National Register of Historic Places and plays a critical role in public land management.

“We have a broad range of work that we do here, which is quite unique,” said Johnson. “Ranch work, Ninemile Wildlands Training Center, Northern Region Pack Train, and all other district work that we do including trails, fire, facilities, silviculture, and vegetation management, wildlife, fishers and the list goes on.”

“The work is rarely boring with changing conditions, priorities, and challenges. It keeps the job interesting.”

Ninemile Ranch Photo Gallery


Suzanne Downing is an outdoor writer and photographer in Montana with an environmental science journalism background. Her work can be found in Outdoors Unlimited, Bugle Magazine, Missoulian, Byline Magazine, Communique, MTPR online, UM Native News, National Wildlife Federation campaigns and more.

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