Grazing & Grouse


Jim and I have noticed that sage grouse broods seem to be larger, and do better, in pastures where our sheep are grazing. Our observations are anecdotal of course, but we figure there are a couple of reasons why grouse do well with livestock grazing. The presence of our guardian animals (both guardian dogs and burros) discourages the use of these areas by predators while the herd is present. When our herds leave a pasture, the predators return, re-inhabiting that space until the cycle begins the next year.

The other important factor is the fresh manure from livestock that provides for a localized increase in bugs – important for survival of sage grouse chicks.

A new research project in southeastern Montana found that sage grouse did 
better in pastures with livestock grazing than in pastures without livestock 
grazing. Here’s some highlights of the research:

• Nest success was higher for nests in pastures with livestock concurrently 
present (59%) than pastures without livestock (38%). Researchers observed no 
direct negative impacts (such as trampling) of livestock on nesting sage grouse.

• Brood success was higher for broods hatched in pastures with livestock (79%) 
than without livestock (61%). The researchers noted: “The mechanism driving 
this is unknown; it may have resulted from behavioral avoidance of livestock by 
predators, or reflect predator control efforts in areas with livestock.”

• “Our results provide further evidence that livestock presence on the landscape 
can benefit nesting and brood-rearing sage-grouse.”

• Mortality to adult hens was attributed primarily to avian predators (40%), 
followed by mammalian predators (27%). No mortalities were attributed to 
collisions with fences or power lines.
• “Our results concur with research elsewhere that livestock grazing is 
compatible with sage-grouse conservation.”

The photos of grouse with cattle and sheep that accompany this post were taken on private land here in Sublette County, Wyoming. They demonstrate something the Montana researchers came away with: “Traditional family-owned ranching operations, the predominant local stakeholders in the Core Area, have historically managed land in a manner that is compatible with sage-grouse conservation and are 
well-poised to collaborate with wildlife and range professionals to maintain and improve sage-grouse habitat.”

The research was conducted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management.

And Cat’s Sheep!

Also just out: Cat Urbigkit’s Shepherds of Coyote Rocks, her first adult book, a distillation and amplification of what you have come to love here and a leap forward for her.

This is the most nuanced and intelligent defense of the traditional pastoral life in print, by a writer who lives it and has heard all the dug- in uninformed arguments. I don’t need to tell readers here about her; suffice to say she can work, and observe, and read, and think, and WRITE. I spent a few days on the ground with her and Jim last fall, and we killed a bottle at their trailer house; I heard more political complexity, diversity, and spirited debate and discussion in one night there than in a week in Jackson Hole, not to mention hearing many scientific papers on early domestication and the evolution of our commensals quoted by self- described “redneck” Jim!

I assume readers of this blog will love it; if they need a quote to pique the curiosity of others, try just this one, in defense of transhumance pastoralism: “As satellite images clearly revealed, both socialism and privatization are associated with worse long term outcomes than those observed in traditional group- based governance.”

Many more like that, and stories, and characters, and Cat’s photos!

Wool harvest

Yesterday was shearing day for our herd. First, we crowd the sheep up the loading chute and into the shearing plant.

My lead sheep, named Assistant Sheep, sticks her head over the top of the chute to let me know of her displeasure.

As the crew of shearers work, each fleece is kicked out the front of the plant.

And freshly shorn sheep are pointed out the back of the plant.

Luv’s Girl is always grumpy on shearing day (as am I). Neither one of us like anyone else bothering our sheep.

But a few hours later, our naked sheep are back safely on the range, ready to begin lambing.

Hud the herding dog watches the sheep go to their bedground with their guardians.

Herding sheep, and words

It’s been such a long time since I’ve posted, and I have missed the blog much in the last few months. Our sheep and guardian animals are all fine and wintering well. We’ve moved the herd to the pasture at our house, so my “checking the sheep” sometimes only involves looking out the window. When we moved to the house, we started feeding hay. It’s a rich mixture of oat/pea/alfalfa, so the ewes leap high into the air, twisting sideways with joy, while chasing the feed truck every afternoon. It’s comical. We won’t start lambing until early May, so these are easy, quiet months for the herd as long as the weather isn’t too miserable. They’ve had an easy winter so far.

Every time our herd moves, it’s an attraction for predators. It usually takes a few days for our guardian dogs to clean out the coyotes from new range, but this year we’re dealing with a couple of packs of coyotes. A few weeks ago, both Rena and Luv’s Girl arrived at the house at dawn, battle-weary and bloody after a night of conflict. The sheep herd was unscathed, and had been joined on their bedground by a couple of hundred pronghorn antelope. Apparently the pronghorn realized that the safest place to be when there are predators on the prowl is with a guarded herd. Neither of the dogs was hurt badly, but Rena slept for almost nine straight hours in the spot just inside the door where she had collapsed upon entry. It was obvious from the frozen traces left on their neck manes that both dogs had been in physical conflicts with smaller animals that were trying to bite their throats. The smaller animals never succeeded, although Luv’s Girl did have some swollen, bloody bites on her nose.

Because of the sheer persistency of our coyote threats, I’ve been trying to keep one guardian dog kenneled at night – forced rest – while the other two are on night duty. Rant has been doing a really good job when he’s on duty, but he’s returned to the house nearly unable to walk a few times now, suffering from exhaustion. The size of the coyote packs are dwindling, and I’m fairly confident that Rant has decided that lethal control is the way to go.

With three burros, and three guardian dogs, and their location right outside the yard, my herd has not suffered from predation this winter, but the everyday threats are astounding. We see coyotes every day, we hear their howling every day without fail, and coyotes make tries on the herd every night. Our sheep are Rambouillets, which are famous for their flocking instinct, which helps to protect the herd from predation. Stray sheep are dead sheep in this predator-rich environment.

While the guardians have been working hard to keep life pleasant for the sheep, I’ve been busy inside. In December, we became aware that our favorite sheep magazine was printing its last issue. The Shepherd had been published for 56 years, was based in Ohio, and each monthly issue had been full of animal husbandry, nutrition, and management information. The loss of the publication was a blow we felt personally.

So my buddy Pete and I talked about it, and we teamed up to make an offer to purchase the magazine. We were somewhat surprised when our offer was successful, and we scrambled to form a corporation and jump through all the legal hoops. We Wyoming sheepherders now own a national monthly sheep industry magazine – something we had not foreseen a few months ago. The purchase did not include employees – what we bought was the brand, its subscribers, its advertisers, its 56 years of history and past issues.

We’ve just sent our first issue of the magazine off to the design and print company. Although printing and mailing the magazine will continue from a facility in Ohio, it’s with a great deal of satisfaction that we’ve moved the editorial and business operations to the sagebrush rangelands of western Wyoming – our sheep range. We’ll continue herding sheep, and words.

For those who want to know more, check out The Shepherd.

Guardian dance

Roo the burro and Rena the Akbash had a gentle dispute again this afternoon, and it resembled a beautiful dance in the snow. Valentine the new bearded pup was venturing outside the yard, and Roo made a beeline to see her, with Rena letting her objection be known.

Apparently it looked like so much fun that Valentine joined in. Roo was very careful not to move her hooves since her ankles were under attack.

All Rena’s worry was for naught. Roo has been watching the puppy all week, and sniffing her through the fence. When Roo got close enough, Val gave Roo’s eye a few licks – puppy kisses.