MISSOULA - As University of Montana students walked to their classes Tuesday, they were joined by the four-legged workers of the US Forest Service (USFS).
A string of pack mules, loaded with equipment from the Ninemile Ranger Station, visited campus to promote outdoor summer courses. Circling the campus oval, the mules carried firefighting and trail gear.
USFS Natural Resource Specialist Laura Johnson has worked with the mules for 12 years and says the animals help students experience the wilderness Montana can offer.
“This UM Summer Kickoff is just a great program and opportunity for everyone to get geared up and excited for summer,” Johnson said.
The eight mules paraded as celebrities, posing for photographs with university students and faculty.
Indiana native and UM freshman Liza Goldner said seeing the mules has her excited for summer potential.
"I love it. The whole reason that like I came here was for the mountains and like nature and everything," Goldner said. "So, it's just made my day.”
The Ninemile Ranger station, located near Missoula, started in 1930 and is still used to winter more than 200 horses and mules. The mules have played an important role in wilderness management, carrying firefighting or maintenance equipment across rugged terrain.
Johnson said the campus visit is a great way to have the mules kick off a new season.
"I also feel pretty proud of these mules. They've been on winter pasture and haven't been used. this is their first trip out."
This is the second time the mules have come to campus for the summer kickoff advertising the summer class "Wilderness Policy and Packing", which includes a five-day trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
Johnson said it's important for people to understand the role pack animals still play in federal operations.
“These mules aren't just a relic of the past or something that is some historic thing we just do for the fun of it," Johnson said. "They're such hard-working animals and they are the ones that enable us to do the kind of trail work that we need to do and the kind of backcountry work that really benefits the public and the Missoula community.”