Forest Service horseman, a vanishing breed, leaves Red Lodge post
Mar 5, 2017
Blowing up dead animals was “just part of the deal” in the 16 seasons Nolan Melin worked as a backcountry horse packer and trail crew member for the Forest Service.
“You’ve got to get rid of them,” he said matter-of-factly about a pretty unusual occurrence.
Otherwise, a dead horse or mule might attract bears to a wilderness trail, which is dangerous for humans and the bears.
Horse packing is a skill few people possess in this digital, mechanized age. The profession harkens back to a simpler time when horsepower actually involved a real horse.
In the Forest Service’s Region 1, which encompasses 25 million acres spread across five states including Montana, there are only eight full-time horse packers with another 25 who include that specialty in their other duties. So that made Melin a rare breed.
Traute Parrie, retired Beartooth District ranger, said, “ … When I got to the Beartooth District ranger job, it was some combination of humbling and thrilling to realize I'd landed on a district where we still had a permanent packer, a rare thing these days. It spoke to the values that this district holds important.”
The reality is that it’s also a punishing profession — lifting heavy loads as well as dealing with horses and mules that sometime possess a mind of their own. Most horse packers have several tales about a wild blow up, when animals bucked loose and took off for points unknown.
“Mules are unforgiving if you don’t understand them,” Melin said. “I love those old mules, but they knew who was boss and who they could walk over.”
Worn out at the age of 36, after years of heavy lifting and being thrown from his mount a few times, Melin is stepping down from his job as packer for the Beartooth Ranger District to work in Miles City. The new job will be closer to his hometown. He grew up on a ranch outside of Ashland.
His departure is leaving a hole in a key position for the forest, and he’s taking his wife, Manda, who was a nine-year trail crew veteran — a double whammy for the district.
“It will be a blow for me,” said Allie Wood, the district’s wilderness and trails manager.
“A lot of our trails are in the wilderness,” she explained. “So we need to get to crews in the backcountry. It’s less effort to do it with stock than to have the trail crew carry in 80 to 90 pounds of gear.”
With restrictions on federal hiring, Wood isn’t sure if or when Melin might be replaced.
There are close to 300 miles of trails in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, a 937,000-acre region in south-central Montana that also contains the highest mountain in the state — 12,799-foot Granite Peak.
“I’ve seen every inch of them, except for maybe some stuff on top,” Melin said, starting off when he hired on to the trail crew at age 19.
He applied for the job on a lark, simply because his brother was putting in for a position in the Forest Service. In a weird twist of fate, Melin got hired, his brother didn’t. After getting broken in as a trail crew member, Melin started packing when the contractor for the Forest Service broke his neck. After increasing his skills, the agency sent Melin to a regional packer school for more specific training.
“I grew up on a ranch so I knew livestock, but not all of the knots and loads for packing,” Melin explained.
Eventually he was taking in five mules hauling 800 to 1,000 pounds of gear on his own once or twice a week, averaging 500 to 600 miles a year. The gear might be for trail work, weed abatement or simply hauling out trash that other wilderness visitors have left behind.
“All the important field work that the public expects us to do, but sometimes feels like it's disappearing,” Parrie said.
The loads would contain everything from awkward wooden timbers for making water bars to dense and heavy bags of concrete to build bridges, and on occasion, explosives to blow up dead animals.
Blasting deceased animals can be complicated if the carcass is particularly pungent, Melin noted. That makes the horses and mules nervous, as well as challenges the intestinal fortitude of the workers — Melin included.
“The ones that have been out there a couple of weeks, when you come up on them it can really ruin your day,” he said.
There’s also the added anxiety that a bear, smelling the same decaying carcass, may be attracted to the site.
The idea is to blow up the dead animals, which can weigh around 1,000 pounds, into smithereens and scatter those bits across a wide area so the carcass is no longer a bear attractant.
“The biggest chunk we ever found (after the explosion) was the size of a pop can,” Melin said. “I never did find a horseshoe, but I was sure I was always pointed the other way” and hiding behind a large rock to avoid being struck by a flying metal shoe when the blasting caps were ignited.
On the other end of his job responsibilities, Melin loved to ride to the Lake Plateau, a high-mountain region between the Stillwater and Boulder rivers strewn with a few of the 948 lakes that dot the wilderness.
Although comfortable with livestock, coworker Jess Howell said she was surprised to find out that Melin liked mountain biking and ultimate Frisbee, pastimes that seemed out of sync with his cowboy attitude. Yet Howell had nothing but praise for Melin’s work ethic.
“He's tough and does whatever it takes to get the job done, even if that means working into the night or going without breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Howell said. “He thinks quick on his feet and comes up with solutions when he or the crew gets in a pickle. He doesn't seem to be afraid of anything.”
“He was a backbone for us,” Wood added.