Spring’s Arrival

A pair of sandhill cranes arrive for breakfast every morning, slowly striding across the green sweep of ground where we’ve fed the sheep flock the day before. They appear in the early dawn, and I step out the back door to quietly call out my wishes for a good morning. The cranes respond with their trilling calls in this most calm time of day. I can’t help but wonder if these are the cranes that I developed the same routine with last year, and the year before … I like to think so. Greeting the morning with old friends is a wonderful way to start the day.

Settling In For Winter

Our fenceline marks the border of the Mesa big game winter range. It’s located south of Pinedale, Wyoming and is closed to motorized traffic from Jan. 1 through April 30 every year so that the mule deer and pronghorn antelope can spend winter days free from disturbance. This 76,000-acre range covers the broad expanse between the Green River to the west, and the New Fork River to the east.

The mule deer migrate from surrounding mountain ranges to concentrate on this lower elevation sagebrush country. Our place is at 7,200 feet in elevation, and we enjoy watching our winter neighbors.

We see a lot of gorgeous bucks, but the does are the ones I view as the most magnificent.

Summer Guardians

We moved our sheep flock to grazing range along the foothills of the Wind River Mountains in early July. We’ve had a refreshingly moist summer, bringing this arid rangeland to life. The ewes are fat, the lambs are growing, and we share the same piece of earth with abundant sage grouse, as well as nesting long-billed curlews. Nine-month old Beyza (an Akbash) has claimed the range as her own, and is a fantastic guardian – as are the others in her lineage, including her mother Luv’s Girl, and sister Rena.

When we moved onto the range, my friend Pete asked if I would take care of an extra female livestock guardian dog. She had just given birth to five pups, and the pups were too small to travel with the herd as they moved into the mountains. I tended to the small family for a few weeks, but one of the 7-week old pups started trying to follow my herd as it grazed during the day. After retrieving the pup from more than a mile away from its siblings, we sent the female to the mountain, and brought the pups to our home, where we have a scattering of orphan lambs and adult sheep.

When people talk about getting livestock guardian dogs off to a good start, much emphasis rests on getting pups introduced to the species it will guard at a young age. That’s important – bonding is best if if starts early. The introductions to the lambs went well.

But what doesn’t get much discussion is how much easier it is to bond pups to a sheep herd that has had a long association with guardian dogs. It’s nearly a cultural thing – this relationship is so close, continuing from one generation to the next. When new pups arrive on our ranch, the adult sheep come to investigate. When the pups walk underneath the ewes, and sniff the underbelly of the rams, the sheep are not panicked or upset. They don’t stomp the pups, and show an amazing amount of patience as pups chew on the big curls of a ram’s horn, or investigate a milk bag on a ewe.

The new pups were soon crawling under the yard gate to hang out with the adult sheep, especially a big range ram. We select and cull sheep based on not just performance and appearance, but behavior. Calm and attentive behavior is ideal. This ram is an ideal babysitter for the pups, and gently disciplines bad behavior.

Spring, and Shared Range

Spring has arrived to our western Wyoming rangelands. We’ve already had temperatures in the 40s and snowmelt, with the resulting visit from our old friend mud – which we haven’t experienced for the longest time in our decade or so of drought. It’s been a pleasure to have to throw the truck in four-wheel drive to get in the driveway. No belly-aching from this corner.

The sandhill cranes have begun to arrive, with their crane calls in morning meadows our true sign of a change of season. We’ll (hopefully) have a few more snowstorms through early May, and I’ll be doing a rain dance for a wet spring to bring this arid range fully out of its dormancy.

The sandhill cranes come close to the house, and follow the sheep flock, nourishing themselves on scattered grain from winter feedlines we fork onto the snow.

Pronghorn antelope herds share this range with the sheep, in larger numbers during the winter months, and less in the heat of summer when they migrate to other areas for grazing. The sheep and the guardian dogs are accustomed to their presence as a part of the landscape in which we live.

It’s this time of year when the wildlife migrations begin, as snowmelt allows big game herds to move from lower elevation desert country and begin to follow the receding snow to the high country. Migratory domestic sheep herds will soon follow, using many of the same trails. Millions of hooves have traveled these paths, for eons. Here’s a glimpse of small herds of pronghorn antelope and elk lining out as they trail back north, to the Wind River Mountains.

Spring has arrived indeed.

Wyoming Winter

We’ve enjoyed a fairly quiet winter in western Wyoming, and are thrilled with the recent series of snowstorms and blizzards hitting our area. We’ve been in a drought so long it was somewhat a pleasure when I buried the feed truck in deep snow this morning. Even though I was sure that the snow would eventually melt and I could retrieve the truck at that time (can’t be more than a few weeks, right?), husband Jim gave it a few tugs with another truck and freed me.

We had high prices last fall during shipping, so we reduced our sheep numbers, and now learn that feeding a small flock within the one-mile pasture around the house is an easy winter chore.

Our winter guardians, in addition to three burros, are three female Akbash guardian dogs, all of the same lineage. After her battle with wolves last fall, Rena healed up nicely. We wondered, and feared, how she might react to predator challenges after such an aggressive fight in which she nearly lost her life. Rather than having fear or aversion, her reaction has been the opposite – she’s a terror on four paws, and seems to have a chip on her shoulder when it comes to the coyotes in the neighborhood.

Rena is joined in guardian duty by her nine-year old mother Luv’s Girl, and her four-month old half-sister Beyza. Following the Tajik tradition of selecting the pup with the bold carriage, I selected Beyza from her littermates because of her swagger – her tail is often held high, curled over her back, and she has aggressive guardian tendencies, even at this young age. She now goes charging out with mother and sister when a threat is perceived.

Our jackrabbit population continues to be depressed, with a corresponding decrease in the number of golden eagles wintering here. Many more bald eagles are concentrated on road-killed animals.

With Jim home taking care of the critters, in between traveling to speak at conferences, I’m spending as much time as possible working on books, with one adult nonfiction title set for release this fall, and a second recently completed nonfiction manuscript under consideration at a publishing house. I’m hopeful that by the end of the year I can get back to the world of books for young readers, but the publishing world continues to undergo upheaval and finding my place in it is like walking blindfolded.

Why We Need Wildlife Services

USDA Wildlife Services – the federal animal damage control agency – has come under increased attack by those who want to shut this agency (which Defenders of Wildlife calls “the hit-man for hire arm of the USDA”), and I want to weigh in after two decades of working fairly closely with the agency in western Wyoming.

Wildlife Services plays a vital role in our livestock operation – whether we are grazing a cattle herd on public land, or our sheep herd on private ground. This agency has the professional expertize we need for lethal control involving problem animals.

But let me back up. Like other livestock producers, lethal control isn’t the only management tool we use with predators, but it is always the one that makes the headlines.

Our sheep herd consists of animals with a strong flocking instinct, making them less vulnerable to predation. Our rams are large and have horns, and when we ran cows, they had horns too, and these animals know how to use them in defense. Our frequent presence in our herds, as well as our frequent shooting to create disturbance, are other methods to discourage predator presence in our active pastures. Our pastures are kept clean of both birth material and animal carcasses. We use both livestock guardian dogs and guardian burros, and believe that these animals are what keep us in livestock production business because they are so effective. Because we use guardian animals, we don’t use traps, snares or poisons because of the threat they pose to the guardians.

We’ve had some success using a motion-detection camera with a flash targeting new den sites to harass predators enough that they’ve moved their dens from our lambing pasture.

Sometimes we use night pens for our sheep, but this option is available only in certain pastures, and is appropriate only under certain conditions. We are well aware that a predator that jumps inside a corral with a penned sheep herd creates a massacre. If your herd is night-penned in large carnivore country, you’d best be sleeping inside that pen unless your perimeter is a high electric fence.

We also allow and encourage sport hunting of predators around our herds, and do some direct shooting ourselves on occasion.

I serve on the county predator board, and the board has a contract with Wildlife Services to perform aerial gunning of coyotes during the winter months to reduce the presence of coyotes on lambing and calving areas on private land in the county. This is the only organized predator control program that takes place in our county. In the past, this program was funded through predator fees collected during livestock brand inspections (so that only livestock producers paid for it), but in recent years the program has been funded through annual budget allocations from our county commission – local tax dollars used for professional predator control. Our board only began contracting with Wildlife Services after the private company we had used for more than three decades was no longer available. Our meetings and our actions (including how much we pay for predator control, and how many animals are killed in the program) are all open and public.

The move to Wildlife Services was made with great hesitancy, but approved based on a real need. The county where I live (Sublette County) is 80% public land, with large portions designated big game winter range where motorized access in winter is prohibited. Our back fenceline is the southern border of the Mesa big game winter range, or as we call it, “the coyote refuge.” Any predator control that takes place in such a sensitive zone must be conducted professionally, and with the concurrence of the land manager – in this case, the Bureau of Land Management. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department provides the predator board with information on fawn:doe ratios in various wildlife herds when the data indicates that these herds are impacted to the extent that predator control is deemed warranted. We started receiving their predator-control wish lists just a few years ago, and the lists are not accompanied by funding to implement.

The most important reason for our ranch to use Wildlife Services is because when there are some conflicts, the agency is our family’s only option to resolve the conflict – the agency keeps us honest, and legal. For example, we’ve had problems with ravens killing newborn lambs. Ravens are federally protected birds, so we are not allowed to kill them, even when they are in the process of killing lambs. Ravens are intelligent, long-lived birds that learn from one another, and when one starts killing lambs, that action draws in others. We call Wildlife Services for rescue when these situations arise. Wildlife Services first must confirm that ravens are the problem, and then places poison bait (avian-specific) on site, and keeps visual observation of the bait to ensure that other protected birds (like hawks and eagles) do not access the bait. Our experience has been that the Wildlife Services effort targets the problem birds and resolves the situation within a matter of hours.

Wildlife Services has also enabled the taking of golden eagles for falconry purposes in Wyoming – the only state in the nation where this is permitted. A certain number of immature eagles (not nesting pairs) are taken from designated depredation zones (areas where eagles are confirmed to prey on lambs). I believe that up to six eagles annually have been live-captured from Wyoming for falconry in recent years, which is a preferred method to federal officials simply killing depredating eagles.

Wildlife Services has also just completed the first year of a new program that targets raven concentrations at Wyoming landfills in five counties that are known as Greater Sage Grouse strongholds. We fully expect that this effort will benefit the sage grouse population, which is under consideration for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Since we live in an area with large predators that are protected by state or federal law (grizzly bears, black bears, and gray wolves), we need assistance to resolve conflicts with these species. Other options are extremely limited or non-existent, and we don’t want to be placed in the position of having to make the decision to break the law or save our animals.

Three years ago, the problem was a bear killing our sheep in a desert pasture on private ground along a major river. We needed an authorized wildlife agency to first determine whether the predator was a black bear (protected by state statute) or a grizzly bear (protected by federal statute). With a black bear, landowners are allowed to kill the animal if it’s caught in the act of killing livestock. This bear was wise, and killed a few sheep about once every week, never coming back to feed on a previous kill, and could not be lured into a baited bear trap. We had all our other predator deterrence methods in use, yet the bear kept returning to kill again. Wildlife Services made numerous attempts to capture the bear, but the bear evaded all efforts. We had to abandon the pasture to stop the killing because we couldn’t eliminate the bear. Since we could never actually see the bear in the act of killing (the closest I got was one day when one of the guardian dogs knocked me to the ground in an effort to keep me from going through the willows where the bear had just killed sheep), we weren’t able to shoot it. The most logical and efficient way to find the bear would be through the use of hounds, but that method was prohibited by state law. State regulations allowed the bear traps to be placed only three nights in a row, and the bear would return every seven days, making this impossible. At least by using Wildlife Services to confirm the bear damage, we were later able to receive some compensation for our losses by the state wildlife agency.

This year, wolves got into our sheep herd and killed nine animals. I called Wildlife Services to request their presence the next morning to examine the carcasses and walking wounded to determine what species was responsible for the problem while we worked to develop our plan of action. We had constant bear presence near our herd, with both grizzly and black bears, but the guardian dogs were doing a great job keeping the bears out of the sheep. Between the phone call and Wildlife Services’ arrival, wolves entered the pasture (where I was present, sleeping next to the herd) and tangled with one of our guardian dogs, which was badly mauled but held the wolves out of the herd. As one Wildlife Services specialist was confirming the sheep kills a few hours later, another shot two wolves as they fled from the pasture, ending the problem. Since there is no compensation for our losses to wolves in this part of the county (it’s part of the predator zone, while other parts of the county are in the trophy zone for wolves where losses are compensated) we didn’t need to have all of the sheep carcasses skinned out for confirmation. In this case, what we needed was an end to the problem, which Wildlife Services effectively provided.

In some cases, it is important to have Wildlife Services confirmation of livestock losses because there are some compensation programs available to producers. In our case, when trophy game animals (black bears) kill our sheep, confirmed losses are eligible for compensation. Our herd grazes in the predator zone for wolves, so our losses to wolves are not compensated, so confirmation of wolf kills is made only to initiate wolf control.

We have had some frustration that when we’ve had numerous bear-killed sheep, Wildlife Services is not able to confirm that all of the animals were bear kills. In these incidents, when a bear is repeatedly preying on our herd, if a 60-pound lamb goes missing, that’s not confirmation of a kill. If only the hide from the lamb is found, that’s not confirmation. If only the spattered blood, the rumen and a few tuffs of wool is found, that’s not confirmation. Some believe that ranchers are calling all the shots and automatically getting confirmation of damage, but we know that is simply not true. From our experience, there must be enough evidence for Wildlife Services to make the confirmation. You would think that if there is favoritism by Wildlife Services to certain clients, I might be one to benefit since I have a good working relationship with Wildlife Services and serve on the board that signs the contract and pays for their services in the county. It just doesn’t happen – this is an entirely professional relationship.

Our livestock losses to predators are minimal, and that is because of the combination of both lethal and non-lethal methods of predator control we use. But Wildlife Services is an important component of our success. It is same agency that both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department utilize for control of large carnivores that come in conflict with livestock or humans. These programs are not indiscriminant killing of predators, but targeted control to resolve conflicts.

I have photos of our bear-killed sheep, wolf-killed sheep, sheep that are walking-wounded from predator attack, raven-killed lambs, and flocks of ravens harassing our ewes in labor or as they have just given birth, but am sparing the reader from having to see such graphic images. They may just be predator attacks on livestock to others, but these are the animals we live and work with every day. They are not just our livelihood, but a big part of our lives. Our job as shepherds is to ensure our animals have a good life from the time they enter the world to the time they leave it. We don’t seek elimination of predator populations, and are happy to share the range with a diversity of wildlife. When we can’t resolve wildlife conflicts, we are thankful to have USDA Wildlife Services to turn to.

Rena’s Contributions

It’s been nearly two months since Rena tangled with wolves while protecting our sheep herd in the foothills of the southern Wind River Mountains. She has recovered nicely – no major muscle loss, but some stiffness in her hind end remains, and we suspect that won’t change. The sheep herd has moved home for the winter, and Rena is happily back on guardian duty, but tires easily. We’re hopeful for a quiet winter.

The essay I posted here on Q about the weekend of the wolf attacks on our herd has been widely read, and I’m pleased to say that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe was one of those readers. Ashe quoted some of the essay at a carnivore conservation conference at Yale this week, and showed the crowd a photo of wounded Rena. His point in doing so was to urge those present “to think about the people who must share the landscape with these species. We need their support, their understanding and their forbearance if we want to see large carnivores roaming free.

“We must seek solutions that work for them, as well as for the species we manage. To do otherwise will perpetuate the conflict and make it harder for carnivores to gain acceptance.

“Compassion and empathy. That’s the key.” Amen to that, Mr. Ashe. Thanks for spreading the word.

Rena’s responsibilities have increased now that she’s healed up and her sheep are home. Her 9-year old mother, Luv’s Girl, gave birth to four pups in early October, so she’s on maternity leave. Luv’s Girl will race out to join Rena in reacting to a perceived threat, but she isn’t actively patrolling since she’s too busy tending to her pups. We’re night penning the sheep to give the dogs a break, but Rena stays double-busy checking the herd, and then checking her mother with the new puppies in their natal den. We’ll keep one of the pups to raise in our herd, and send the others out to other livestock producers who need working dogs. I think we can say with confidence that this lineage is wolf- and bear-tested.

The Land Of My Soul

It was a crisp 16 degrees when we set out, the headlights of the truck shining on the black ice coating the roadway, with the soft fog buffering the white glare of the freshly fallen snow blanketing the landscape. It was slow going pulling the empty stock trailer so it wouldn’t fishtail on the slick pavement, but an hour later, we turned off the highway onto a dirt flat overlooking the Big Sandy River, and were quickly swallowed into the frenzy of activity in the first morning light.

A set of portable pens the size of a basketball court had been erected the day before, and sat empty in preparation for the work ahead. A variety of muddy pickup trucks and stock trailers were parked nearby, out of the way of the semi tractor-trailers lined up to begin loading. Emerging from these vehicles or sitting astride horses were more than a dozen people of various nationalities – sheep herders from Ecuador, Nepal, Peru, and Mexico – Basque sheepman, truck drivers and a lamb buyer from neighboring Idaho, a local veterinarian, and state brand inspector. It was shipping day, time to ship the year’s lamb crop to market. Rain and snow in the few days prior had prohibited us from sorting the sheep beforehand, so the herds had been combined and would come into the corral in one large bunch, with the sorting to occur at a series of gates off the alleyway leading to the loading chute. The sheep would enter the alleyway, with two sorting gates allowing older cull ewes to be separated into a second pen, and our herd to be cut into a third, with the main ewe herd proceeding down the alleyway and back out into the sagebrush, while market lambs would take a right turn and head up the loading chute into the waiting semis.

We waited in the cool morning air, shaking hands and visiting among the group, and petting the herding dogs when they approached in greeting, while the herders went to retrieve the herd. The dim morning light struggled to peek through the heavy overcast skies, but when the bunch of 8,000 head of ewes and lambs crested the ridge to the east and began flowing down the hillside, the sight was breathtakingly beautiful. Each of the sheep combined with the others so the herd seemed as one fluid movement, covering the landscape between the pens and the ridge in graceful unison, with their thousands of hooves making only a muted muffle as they shuffled through the snow. There were nearly two dozen guardian dogs amid the herd and around it in every direction – soldiers on the move, prepared for battle. Five of the guardians stayed ahead, scouting for danger as the herd moved forward. As the herd came closer, herders joined in on foot or horseback to continue to propel the flock in its forward movement.

The herd came to a halt just before the entrance to the pens, with the lead sheep pausing, heads up and erect, inspecting the layout before being escorted in by their canine guardians. The herd surged and moved through the open gate as a wave of water over a riffle, filling the pen in a matter of minutes.

The men stationed themselves from the loading chute, along the gates and alleyway, and throughout the large pen to keep the herd always moving forward. They laughed, hollered, whistled, cussed, and told stories, working hard all the while. They would work from dawn to nearly darkness, coming and going as duties demanded.

As they worked, I took photos and greeted many of the guardian and herding dogs that came through. I could only spend a few hours at the pens before I had to hit the road for a previous commitment on the other side of the state. As I turned to leave, I decided to take one last walk around the outside of the herd. I called “hey girls, morning girls,” as I walked, and as I made the last turn of the curved pen, a distinct voice arose from that of the others. I looked in that direction and was thrilled to see Assistant Sheep, the lead sheep of our small herd, as she raced to the fence to greet me, raising her nose to mine as we touched heads in greeting.

When the semis were filled, a caravan of trucks would backtrack 15 miles south, to weigh the trucks on a certified scale. The weighs would be calculated with the negotiated sales price agreed to weeks before, and a telephone call would have the money wired from the buyer’s account to the seller’s before the trucks would be allowed to leave. The veterinarian had looked over the entire loading process, as had the brand inspector, and they leaned on the hoods of their trucks doing paperwork to certify the health of the animals and transfer ownership.

By the time I drove back through the rangeland, darkness hid its wonders, but I knew that under that starry sky, herds were bedded with their guardians and herders, waiting for that first light to begin making their way south to the desert for winter grazing. And as I turned my truck into our driveway, I turned the wheel so the headlights swung across the pen below the house, where I could see my sleeping herd, resting from their day’s journey home.

Those who know me well know I call this sagebrush rangeland the land of my soul. Today my soul was nourished, and my heart was filled by the simple beauty of these animals and humans who share their lives in this great land.

Range Sheep & Big Predators

I am weary of the snide, ignorant, and vicious comments made in response to last week’s death of 176 sheep due to a wolf attack in eastern Idaho (see stories here and here). Some of the sheep were directly bitten and killed, but the majority of the animals were killed in a stampeding pileup as they tried a hillside escape.

Range sheep are not stupid or defenseless animals. Our cull ewes weigh about 175 pounds, and will turn on a dog or coyote and try to stomp it into the dirt.

They flock closely together as a defense mechanism against predators. In response to a predator, they will bunch up, and flee in panic. A herd that has already sustained attack has high stress levels, and will remain nervous and flighty. Flee response is similar in many other ruminants and ungulates – everything from pronghorn antelope to domestic horses have the same response. We know that herds persecuted by predators sometimes experience ill health, even if those animals aren’t directly bitten. They suffer weight loss, and may abort their lambs if they are pregnant.

Deadly pile-ups aren’t unheard of. In a winter storm, the sheep will try to drift, and if they encounter a fence, they may pile up and die. It’s similar to what happened in that famous antelope die off with the Red Rim fence. But a panicked stampede in response to extreme danger isn’t unheard of in other species either – it happens with humans as well, with people trampling other people to death in attempt to escape. There are cases of mass trampling deaths around the globe, from walruses to wildebeest.

Range sheep are hardy animals that give birth to lambs in early spring snow storms, and those babies get on their feet to nurse, and thrive from there. They have much of the same life cycle as the pronghorn antelope they share the same range with.

Some have demanded to know where the herders and guard dogs were during the Idaho attack. It’s worth noting that three of this ranch’s guardian dogs had already been killed by this pack of wolves during this grazing season.

Do you expect the herders to hear a ruckus in the night, go outside and be able to ascertain what is happening in the dark? It might be plausible at the ranch homestead where there is outside lighting, but in a camp on the range, it’s not. A herder in the Bridger-Teton National Forest tried to do just that a few years ago, and he was mauled by a grizzly bear. Some faulted the herder for going out to find out why the dogs were in an uproar.

Montana rancher John Shuler got up one night to see what was causing the ruckus he was hearing from his sheep pens at his home and found three grizzly bears killing his penned sheep. When one of the grizzlies turned to him, rising on its hind feet and roaring, Shuler shot it. He was charged with a federal offense, with the judge faulting him for placing himself in danger, stating that he should have stayed in his house that night. It took nearly a decade for Shuler to be cleared of the charges.

As I write this, I am sleeping in a tent alongside my own sheep herd as it grazes private pastures near the Wind River Mountains. We’ve had bear incidents in two of the last four nights. The first incident involved a bear coming into the pasture, only to be confronted by the guardian dogs, which then chased the dark blur up the fence line and past me as they chased the bear back up the draw and deeper into the mountains.

The second incident involved the dogs chasing a bear from the nearby cattle herd. I was concerned about both the sheep and dogs, so I walked around in the dark, using a headlamp and carrying a firearm, as I checked the herd and inspected the dogs upon their return. Had I been mauled or bitten by a predator, some would have faulted me, staying I should have waited for daylight. At the time, I didn’t know what species of predator was involved in the night’s chaos.

My point is that while it is easy to sit back and pass judgment on others about what they should have, or should not have, done in a moment of crisis, it’s generally not helpful and is really only self-serving. What is the right thing to do isn’t always clear at all. There is no consensus about what herders should do in response to predation at night, but it’s best to err on the side of human safety – no amount of dead livestock is worth a human life. Some herders don’t carry firearms, and some aren’t proficient with them anyway, even if they could pick out a predator in the dark.

We as humans try to do the best we can, and different people will respond differently. I simply advocate more compassion for fellow humans. I do also recognize that the nasty comments about the Idaho sheep pile up probably have little to do with what actually happened. Instead, it’s about the ongoing polarization of those still bickering over wolves, predator control, and over public lands livestock grazing.

We who tend to herds in large carnivore country have our own opinions on those issues as well, but those views take a back seat to our actions on the ground. Day by day, we take action to protect both ourselves and our herds, but always work with the knowledge that when large carnivores and livestock share the same range, some livestock will die, as will some predators. It’s not a perfect situation, but it is reality.

Lesotho – the kingdom in the sky

Jim and I have just returned from a fantastic trip to Lesotho and South Africa. While we enjoyed our journey into the heart of traditional Zululand in South Africa (a future post), our arrival in the high alpine mountains of Lesotho was the discovery of Shangri-La.

The Kingdom of Lesotho is an independent nation entirely surrounded by South Africa, and is regarded as the highest country on earth, with its lowest point about 4,600 feet above sea level. We entered via the eastern route, crawling in four-low up rocky Sani Pass (formerly a footpath used by the San), at an elevation of 9,429 feet – the highest mountain road in Southern Africa, and home to the highest pub in Africa, where we stopped in for a hot lunch on a crisp and windy winter day (in late July, with spring just around the corner in early September). Most visitors that go in via Sani Pass stop at the pub for a photo and go back to South Africa, but they miss the beauty to be found just beyond, in the highlands.

We soon encountered men and boys walking with herds of cattle, sheep, and Angora goats, or riding hardy Basotho ponies, or leading their burros packed with 100-pound bags of maize. There are few vehicles in this mountain environment, but there are burro trails criss-crossing the rural countryside, and with access so limited, most items moving into and across this region are loaded on a burro’s back. Most people we encountered were accompanied by dogs (more on that later).

The first Basuto stockman we stopped to visit with along the narrow road as part of his herd of 900 cattle crossed in front of us spoke excellent English, and had a pack of assorted dogs eager for his attention. We soon learned that while his larger dogs serve as livestock guardians, he was doing some active crossbreeding to run jackals for fun. With our first encounter being with a man of sporting nature, we knew we had entered a place we would treasure.

The Basuto people who live in this rural region of Lesotho raise livestock and have a subsistence agricultural lifestyle. They are self-sufficient, and the environment is pristine, with no garbage or broken glass to be seen. They live in thatch-roofed, rock- or manure-blocked huts with thick walls providing excellent insulation. A family compound may have several of these huts for extended family members, with rock corrals at the center, where livestock and hay can be safely contained. Their dirt-packed yards are manicured to perfection by women using bundled brush as brooms.

Common everyday attire includes the traditional wool blanket. Different patterns, colors and style of wearing provide some symbolism, with women wearing certain colors, tied at the waist in a certain way, to indicate whether they are single or married. More elaborate or higher-quality blankets indicate higher status or wealth. Many Basuto people raise Merino-type fine-wooled sheep in this alpine zone, with communal shearing sheds busy processing herds in September. Some of the wool is sent to South Africa for processing, and returns to village stores as wool weft blankets.

A few signs of modernity are evident throughout both Lesotho and South Africa’s Zululand. While these countries skipped landlines (and most don’t have computers), most people have cell phones. (There are more cell phones subscribers in Africa than in the United States or the European Union, according to the World Bank.) Nielson reports that South Africa ranks fifth in the world for mobile data usage – while the United States ranks seventh. More people in South Africa have cell phones than have access to electricity, or clean water, or indoor toilets. Cell phones have become a lifeline in many ways, including linking people to clinics and doctors as these populations struggle with high levels of HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. I should note that while I’ve seen the high statics for these diseases, of course we never saw visibly sick people. What we did see were hundreds of women walking for miles with their babies on their backs for vaccination days at rural clinics. Availability of these clinics is transmitted via text message, as are TB results and other critical information, as well as school and public bus schedules. (Buses, as well as “taxi cars” are four-wheel drive vans.)

Enclosed pit toilets are making their way into the rural areas of both Lesotho and South Africa – these are new innovations in these areas, and are constructed as community projects, promoted by government and NGO programming. We also saw community wells being installed, especially in the hills of Zululand. South Africa President Jacob Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal has especially benefited.

Lesotho’s rugged, kidney-bruising Sani Pass Top road is currently being blasted and widened to allow better access to the eastern portion of the country. The steepest, narrowest part of the road is being widened also, but you still can’t get more than one vehicle around the corners at a time and I don’t see that improving in the near future. Water runs down cracks in the rocks year-round, so drainage culverts are being installed. A major Chinese construction firm is doing the work on a 26-mile segment of the road, with the goal of providing a better link from South Africa to the Lesotho village of Mokhotlong. But some wonder whether there may be plans for future mining or water development driving this major investment in an isolated region. Portions of the road have been improved to be as large as a major mining haul road, so these concerns may not be far-fetched.