Pack llamas get OK after proposed ban in Alaska national parks

Raul doesn't appeared to be bothered by unfamiliar company. His white ears twitch when cars drive by his Eagle River home, but he never stops chewing on little bits of his food -- except when his owner saddles him up with about 70 pounds of gear for an Alaska expedition.

For the last 31 years, Phil Nuechterlein and his wife have been leading pack llamas through Alaska's state and national parks. Phil said they've been to Denali National Park and Preserve, up the Dalton Highway to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve and have traveled extensively through Wrangell St. Elias National Park and Preserve.

But recently, that lifestyle was in jeopardy.

In January, the National Park Service proposed a ban on domesticated sheep, goats, alpacas and llamas in Alaska's national parks after someone tried to take a pet goat into Denali National Park's Savage Alpine Trail, an area utilized by Dall sheep, according to Denali National Park and Preserve public affairs officer Kris Fister. Biologists fear domesticated animals could transmit new diseases to the wild animals.

"There is definitive documentation of the transmission of diseases from domestic sheep (and) goats to their wild kin," Fister said.

But in a Park Service compendium published in mid-March, officials wrote the transmission of disease from a llamas or alpacas to wild sheep or mountain goats has not been documented, and the likelihood is "probably low, although still possible."

National Park Service regional communications officer John Quinley said the agency doesn't have a "hard number" on the amount of pack animals traveling through national parks, but it estimates "very few."

Two of the few to maintain the ancient way of travel are the Nuechterleins.

The Nuechterleins are "outdoor-inclined" and like to hike, and that's what brought the idea of a pack animals to the table more than three decades ago.

"If you go on an extended backcountry trip and you're not into wheeled vehicles, or you can't take wheeled vehicles for various reasons, then if you can't carry everything on your back, you're going to put it on a pack animal," Phil said. "It allows people to participate in outdoor activities and access remote areas without being encumbered with a tremendous load."

Llamas are well-suited to Alaska's sometimes bitterly cold climate and mountainous terrain. The Nuechterleins purchased their first llamas from Oregon, and transported them by plane in modified dog crates while they were still young and relatively small. As weanlings, the couple led them on short adventures without a heavy pack saddle, but eventually the llamas grew into larger expeditions.

Today, three llamas -- Julio, El Jefe and Raul -- reside on the Nuechterlein's property. For now, Phil said, the Park Service "has blessed the pack llama."

After a public comment period ended in February, domesticated sheep and goats were banned, but the pack llamas and alpacas were allowed to keep trekking through the state's national parks. Beginning Wednesday, pack llamas and alpacas will need permission from park superintendents.

Its a simple step, which Nuechterlein said he's OK with, as long he's allowed to continue exploring Alaska's backcountry with the help and company of his herd.

"Most people would rather sit on a padded seat and pour gas into something than to get on their own two feet and hike somewhere with a pack animal," Phil said. "The returns from having the outdoor experiences are great. It's a wonderful thing in life."

Megan Edge

Megan Edge is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News.