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Thanks to a decades-old partnership, the U.S. Forest Service and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission are able to offer over a million acres of public hunting opportunity in the Ouachita and Ozark/St. Francis National Forests. Getting the most out of remote portions of these rugged lands, however, takes a little extra effort. Arkansas outfitter Casey Brewster has discovered the therapeutic power of hunting and relaxing in these out-of-the-way public lands, thanks to some ingenuity and a few surefooted assistants. He and his organization lead veterans and first responders on special multiple day hunting trips using pack goats to get their supplies where they need to go.
ATVs and other motorized forms of transit are not allowed in most of the forest due to the damage they can cause if left unchecked on public land. Many hunters have learned the value of animals, such as horses, mules and even goats, to help them set up camp in Arkansas’s public wilderness. The animals cause much less disturbance and add more to the experience for many hunters and outdoors enthusiasts.
Brewster is a part-time worker with the AGFC and research scholar for the University of Arkansas who was one of the project leads in the AGFC’s effort to reintroduce collared lizards in restored habitat in the Ozarks. He also founded Snake Mountain Pack Goats, a nonprofit organization that uses specially bred goats to carry the gear necessary for multiple-day getaways, guiding his clients and friends on deer hunts, bear hunts, smallmouth fishing trips and campouts, all at no charge.
“I get some strange looks leading a string of goats on hunting trips and plenty of questions from curious hikers,” Brewster said with a smile when we caught up with him at the World Champion Squirrel Cook Off in September.
Brewster was wounded in combat in Iraq before his current career with the AGFC and the University of Arkansas. While he had loved the outdoors before his deployment, engaging in the outdoors and focusing on his education were pivotal in his adjustment back to civilian life.
“When my former spouse and I first got our farm out in West Fork, the property was overrun with non-native invasive weeds,” Brewster said. “I’d wanted goats for a long time, and using them to clean up that area of invasives was a great excuse to get a few. Then I started seeing some videos of people using goats for elk hunts out West, and I started making contacts to learn more. When I learned I could incorporate the goats and the outdoors into helping veterans and first responders, it just sort of all came together. ”
The goats aren’t just pack animals on the journeys. Working with them often becomes part of the experience for his guests.
“We call it, ‘mountain therapy,’ Brewster said. “We take people who may be having some difficulties and let them get away from everything, relax and just immerse themselves in the experience.”
The goats even help raise funds to continue the group’s mission. Staff lead day hikes and participate in other events to raise funds.
“Yes, some of our staff lead some goat yoga experiences to help with fundraising, too,” Brewster said.
Goats may not be for everyone, but they are essential to Brewster’s style of outdoor adventure.
“If you hunt or hike on leased or private land where you could get a side by side or ATV or only spend an hour or two on your hunts, maybe a string of goats isn’t for you,” Brewster said. “But a lot of public land in Arkansas has terrain and regulations that prevent the use of those things. If you’ve ever looked at some of those remote places and just knew that you could have the place to yourself if you could figure out how to get in there, goats can be a real game changer.”
In addition to their go-anywhere abilities, goats are much more agreeable than llamas, mules and other pack animals. The larger pack animals often require more effort to stay on lead, but goats are much more dependent on their owners. Brewster says most goats won’t wander out of sight of their team, and practically any tame goat will want to follow you, so they can be used without much training.
“They’re just a lot easier,” Brewster said. “I don’t really have to bring in food because they’ll eat pretty much whatever is available, and they don’t need much water. Even then, they’ll drink water right out of a bottle I carry and dip down in puddles and creeks to collect along the way.”
The standard rule for any pack animal, or people for that matter, is to keep any loads around 20 percent of their body weight. Where mules may carry 150 to 300 pounds of gear, most pack goats top out at 40 pounds of added baggage. An extra 80 pounds of gear distributed between two goats can make for a nice small camp, but Brewster’s team often works with a string of a dozen happy animals to create a full-blown base camp in their adventures.