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.

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.

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.

The Meadow Lark

Jim and I were
surprised to encounter a western meadowlark on the haystack on this last day of
2012. I’ve mixed feelings about the year we’re putting to bed – there has been
so much sorrow for so many. So it is with joy that a meadowlark closes out the
year, and sings in the new one.
From Paul
Laurence Dunbar’s The Meadow Lark:
the winds be dank,
And the sky be sober,
And the grieving Day

In a mantle gray

Hath let her waiting maiden robe her, –

All the fields along

I can hear the song

Of the meadow lark,
As she flits and flutters,
And laughs at the thunder when it mutters.
O happy bird, of heart most gay

To sing when skies are gray!”

turned our rams out 10 days ago, but we spent today helping sort and load rams
at Pete’s place. When we left the house, it was 22 below zero, but by the
time we started work with the sun shining off bright-white snow, it had warmed
to -8, perfect conditions. (Click on photos to enlarge.)

 Here’s the crew – three of my favorite sheepmen: Dick Thoman, Pete Arambel and Jim Urbigkit.

 Pete sorting through the bucks.

I laugh when
people suggest that sheep are weak or defenseless. Makes me think they’ve never
met range sheep. These rams are athletic and ready to rock.

The herding dogs were playful outside the corral, and a few horses came over to see what was happening.

May your 2013 be filled with beauty, and joy, and meadowlarks on gray days.

The woman has no shame …

I love this poster that The Countryman Press created to promote my new book, so I’m posting it here to show it off. In the original image that serves as the background, there is actually a slash of rainbow-colored light escaping from the cloud cover over my sheep herd as they graze along the Wind River Front. It was a beautiful, stormy spring day, and the image takes me back there every time I look at it. The combination of the fresh rain smell and damp sagebrush is heavenly.

Countryman Press’s publicity guru and all-around nice guy Tom Haushalter asked me a series of questions about writing the book and what it was like to live on the range with my herd, and posted my responses over on the company’s blog. Have a look here.

It’s officially fall, and we’ve had our first snowstorms in the Winds, helping to put a damper on the wildfires still burning in forests on both sides of this valley.

Our herd, and its guardians (both burros and dogs) continue to graze on private property along the Wind River Mountains – about three miles from where the photo above was taken. Although we had acquired a new guardian pup a few months ago (Khan), we had to give him up last weekend, as we met someone who needed him more than we did. He’s currently getting acclimated to his new job guarding a goat herd in central Wyoming. It’s tough to let pups go, but it’s easier when I know they are headed out to do the job they are meant to do.

The domestic sheep herds (including the one below) are headed off the national forests and back onto the lowlands to start their journey south to the desert for winter grazing. The dark spots near the herder on horseback are herding dogs, but the other black spots are black sheep (marker sheep that enable the ease of counting, as in 1 marker per 100 ewes), and the brighter white animals are guardian dogs. Click on the image to see a larger version.

New range

We got the sheep herd moved to new range today. We’re in the foothills of the Wind River Mountains, and this private pasture is about seven miles from where a black wolf was seen in another sheep herd the day before. Federal control efforts on this pack of sheep-killing wolves continues. Wolves in Wyoming are federally protected, so federal officials have to be involved when there are conflicts. Rant is sporting a spiked collar to give him a little more protection should the wolf pay a visit to our herd.

Rant has been busy marking the new turf. His elbow joint is swollen with arthritis and he’s limping, but he’s got the heart of a lion when it comes to protecting his herd, part of which is seen below, checking out the sedge grasses in the slough that transects the pasture.

The herd shares the range with pronghorn antelope. Our ewes only have two teats, but pronghorns have four teats (click on the photo to enlarge). Can anyone tell me why? I’ve seen pronghorn triplets, but no more than that. This doe was drinking water in our driveway (runoff from the sprinkler).

The local sage grouse population in this area is BOOMING! Large broods are concentrated along irrigated hay meadows and it is a joy to see so many of these beautiful birds.

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.

December in the sheep pasture

The Wind River Mountains are magnificent in their snow-covered spendor, but the sagebrush rangelands still contain only a scattering of snow.

The image below is our New Fork River pasture where the sheep are currently located, taken at sunrise earlier this week. It was about -8 degrees that morning, which is a typical overnight low for us this time of year.

This herd of mule deer have been a constant presence in the pasture for the last few weeks, safe from disturbance for breeding season. I’m still trying to get a good photo of the muley/white-tailed hybrid buck that hangs out with this bunch.

We turned the rams out last weekend, to join the ewe herd, so we’ll have lambs five months from now. This ram has wounds from recent skull-crashing disputes with another ram.

While I fed the guardian dogs and had a look around the pasture, I heard the sound of branches breaking. It was two bull moose, browsing their way through the willows.

Western Wyoming’s Shiras moose population has been suffering, so it’s a great pleasure to share the pasture with these fellows.