Two years into retirement, Harlan Lear began looking for a hobby to occupy his free time. Raised on a farm, Lear always had animals to tend to as a youngster.
He wanted something that could be raised on the hay grown in his fields. After considering llamas, ostriches and buffaloes, a newspaper article led him to consider raising yaks, the bovine known for its origins in the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet and Nepal.
After a 30-year career at Steamboat Springs High School in positions that included social studies and physical education, athletic director, vice principal and principal, the retired Lear purchased his first yaks.
"I started with five heifers that were about a year-and-a-half old," Lear said. "Also a bull that was 3 years old."
As the herd grew to more than 25 animals, the amount of work increased until it required more hours than a full-time job. This was not his idea of retirement, he decided. He sold off all but his bull and five cows, keeping one baby he and his wife, Saundra, had become attached to.
Today, the Lear's ranch south of Steamboat Springs is where people from around the country go to purchase yaks for a variety of reasons.
"People I sell them to like them as pasture pets," Lear said. "The breeders that have a lot of yaks raise them for the meat."
Yak meat is high in protein and low in cholesterol with a slight, sweet taste to it, Lear said.
The uniqueness of the animal was part of the attraction of yaks for Lear.
"Ten years ago, there were 1,500 in all of North America," he said. "You can't import them now because of stricter rules since the mad-cow scare."
The Yak Association registers yaks, and is dedicated to keeping the animals from being crossbred with cattle.
The down from a yak is softer that alpaca wool, and warmer as well, Lear said.
Saundra Lear combs the animals in the spring, and makes products from the wool.
"It's a very short fiber, which makes it hard to spin," she said. "The hair has scales on it that locks in place when you rub them together."
The guard hair from a yak is softer than horsehair, and it is braided into halters and lead-ropes.
Once in high demand, it sold for $20 to $30 per ounce. The softer down hair is knitted into sweaters and caps, and makes a boot-liner that is so warm it must be freezing out to use them, Lear said.
Yak milk is richer than a cow's milk, and is mostly used for making butter and cheese.
Sherpa guides in the Himalayan Mountains drink a tea made from tea, salt and yak butter.
Raising yaks is very much like raising any bovine, Lear said. He trims the hooves and feeds them hay in the winter. Sometimes they get a treat of grain and molasses.
He doesn't need a lot of corrals and squeeze chutes for his operation.
A yak will eat only about one-third of what beef cattle eat, and Lear can feed eight or nine yaks with 90 pounds of hay each day in the winter.
He has never had to pull a baby, and has never lost a calf.
At birth, a baby yak weighs 35 to 40 pounds, with mature cows reaching between 600 to 800 pounds.
Lear's bull, Two K, weighs in at 1,500 pounds.
The animals are pretty intelligent, and have a personality of their own, he said.
Lear has royal yaks, which are black and white with a white face, and trims, which are black with white trim.
Yaks in America are descendents of the first yaks given to the United States by the Dalai Lama years ago, when he was granted asylum here.
Yaks are used as pack animals here and in Tibet and Nepal. They are favored over horses at high elevations, and work easily over 15,000 feet, where horses can't get enough oxygen.
Lear begins pack-training his animals when they are weaned at 4 to 5 months. They start with halter training, and he gets them to lead and load in trailers soon afterwards.
He sells off his youngsters at 6 to 8 months, and charges $1,500 for a heifer. Bulls go for $1,000, and a fully trained yak can command $4,000.
The horns grown on a yak's head two or three days after birth are not ornamental. They first grow up, then curl, and then grow up again.
"They use those horns pretty well," Lear said. "They clean the mud out of their hooves, and can get the lid off a grain bucket."
The animals cannot be beat when it comes to packing gear, Lear said. They walk at the same speed that humans do, and they can carry as much as a horse.
On Lear's fishing trips, the yaks graze around the lakes after carrying the tent and coolers to the site. They sleep just outside the tent, and are very calm through the evenings.
They do very well in the snow and cold, and the hair grows long on adults living in cold climates.
When a yak runs, it throws its tail over its back, much like a horse. Lear said yaks are very sure-footed.
Lear has sold yaks to people from Pennsylvania to San Diego, and from Oregon to North and South Dakota, and the Yampa Yaks Web site gets international visitors.
The hardest part about walking with the yaks, might be all of the attention that the animals draw.
"When we train with packs, people stop us all the time to talk about the yaks," Lear said. "We're lucky if we get five blocks."