One woman comes to better understand the range, nature as a whole, and herself by spending a season with the sheep.
Writer and photographer Cat Urbigkit got to know public lands in the Upper Green River Basin by living the practice of transhumance—herding sheep across the seasons—by living with livestock guardian dogs and joining the ancient tradition of the shepherd. In this excerpt from the first chapter of her book Shepherds of Coyote Rocks (Countryman Press, 2012), read about the beginning of this communion with the outside world.
The land outside my door is a land of contrasts. Today it is a place of supple beauty, the quiet of dawn punctuated only by the soft call of a golden eagle on her rock perch half a mile away, and the quork, quork of a murder of ravens as they fly over, inspecting my outpost. Yet while the sunlight spreads its golden rays over my nestled camp, I look up to see a winter storm raging over the granite peaks in the distance, the highline buried in a startling ribbon of white. I’m only an hour from our home ranch, but it’s as though I’m on the other side of the world. The landscape resembles the steppes of Mongolia. In fact, today it feels like Mongolia. I know this, having been drawn to the Mongolian steppe, and feeling at home in that amber Asian light.
Like the Mongolian nomads whose lives are tied to the herds they tend, I am here to watch over my sheep. I am alone in camp, with one herding dog, three guardian dogs, and several hundred pregnant ewes. The sheep are slated to begin giving birth in less than a week, and it’s my responsibility to shepherd them, to keep them safe. There are no houses within view, no lights at night to mar the pristine darkness other than that of the moon, the stars, and my flickering candle.
We’re new to the neighborhood, having trucked the sheep in yesterday, the first of May. We’ve received many shy visitors in the hours since our arrival, most in the form of curious avians, fluttering, flickering, hovering above, checking out the newcomers. Yesterday, despite the gusting winds of late afternoon, we were greeted by the smallest of the falcons, an American kestrel. A fluttering of wings above the bedded sheep, the kestrel zigzagged just out of reach. Small groups of pronghorn antelope raced in to see the new ungulates on their range, only to come to an abrupt halt, snorting their displeasure at our trespass. The pronghorn gradually calmed, pointing their dramatically marked faces to the ground, nibbling the fresh spring growth, succumbing to an acceptance of shared range.
I take comfort in the fact that, forty miles to the south, sheepherders from Nepal tend to other herds grazing this sagebrush range. They are my comrades, kindred spirits. They may have left extended families—their wives, small children, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, and grandparents—back home in Nepal; they may have once been mercenaries fighting for whoever could pay the most; they may currently be small-businesspeople working in a global climate. No matter their background, this nomadic shepherd life drew them here.
We each have our own stories. This is mine, a season with the sheep.
The wind howled through part of our first night on the range, but when it calmed, I looked out from my warm sleeping bag to discover a bright waning moon lighting up the landscape. Coyotes were howling and yowling in the badlands and clay buttes to the southeast, and my livestock guardian dogs were returning the barrage of sound. I would find sleep difficult in silence, but the low, full-throated boom of a large dog is akin to rocking my cradle.
At dawn I rose to check the sheep, which were contentedly moving off their bedding ground, tasting the morning’s frosty morsels, and the livestock guardian dogs began to appear around camp. First Rena, the ambassador of all guardians, came in with enthusiasm, apparently pleased to learn that I had endured the night. Next came the young stud dog, our Russian comrade Rant, limping up from the hills below, stiff and sore, a battle-weary warrior. Luv’s Girl, the oldest and wisest, mother of Rena, trotted in hungry, arising from her bed amid the sheep. Each received fresh water and food along with my adoration. The dogs are tired this morning, and I can only hope that the coyotes are feeling the same way.
Jim called my cell phone (I have cell service only atop the highest hills of this remote rangeland), reporting that the weather would be blustery for the next two days, with a good probability of rain or snow on the third day. Since the morning was fairly calm, I decided after breakfast to take the sheep to the only water hole in the pasture, before the winds began again. The herd had been quenching its thirst on snowdrifts remaining in a few gullies and draws, and with the morning frost on their grazing range. Rena and Abe, my herding dog and constant companion, came along, helping me move the herd to water. The sheep are naturally wary about walking into tall brush and always pause on hills to scope out the scene below before proceeding. Rena took the lead, scouting out ahead of the herd as Abe and I directed from behind. In her position up front, Rena flushed a few sage grouse and chased off the ravens that swooped low overhead.
We arrived at the small impoundment only to find a layer of ice on the surface. While Rena and I got busy busting ice along the edge, the herd proceeded forward, not the slightest bit interested in our efforts. Apparently the morning frost provided all the moisture the animals needed, but at least they would know where to find water later on.
We hurried to catch up, as the sheep grazed atop a mound I had dubbed Coyote Rocks, where golden eagles, sly coyotes, and elusive desert cottontails live a secretive existence. Abe, Rena, and I spent the next hour climbing around, inspecting all the nooks, caves, nests, and dens. The multicolored lichen blanketing the rocks is abundant, as are the whitewash stains left by raptors on their most-frequented perches. The wind resumed its howling while we were thus engaged, with the sheep grazing away from us down below. We made it back to camp just as the clouds moved over us, casting the landscape in shadow, accompanied by gusting cold winds.
The rangeland we inhabit is in the Big Sandy region of western Wyoming, part of the Upper Green River basin. The basin encompasses hundreds of square miles of land, ranging from the high-elevation granite Wind River Mountains, to boulder-strewn foothills, sagebrush steppe, and semiarid desert. The Green River emerges from the Wind River Mountains and flows south through the basin to Wyoming’s border with Utah and Colorado. Farther south, the river merges with the Colorado River, which traverses the western American states to its end in Mexico.
Although there are small towns and ranches in this basin, wildlife and livestock vastly outnumber people. It is a part of the West sometimes called the Empty Interior—thousands of miles of arid and semiarid landscapes that were never fully settled for permanent residency, but traditionally used by drovers for seasonal livestock grazing. Deemed undesirable for settlement, these areas were declared public lands, to be managed by federal authorities, with grazing as their primary use.
Grazing privileges are parceled out under a federal permitting system, with set durations and conditions for use. A federal grazing allotment can be a series of pastures ranging in size from a few acres to dozens of square miles. Some allotments are species-specific (intended only for sheep or cattle, for example), while others can be grazed by various herds. Some allotments provide for grazing by one ranch, while others, called common allotments, allow numerous ranches (often in the form of grazing associations) to combine their livestock and graze their animals together.
The rangeland my sheep are inhabiting this year encompasses nearly thirty square miles. The smallest pasture is only a few square miles, and fenced on all sides. The other pastures are up to seventeen square miles in expanse, with fences on two sides, a wide western river as one boundary, and a wet draw as its remaining border. Along with shepherding the flock through the grazing season, seeing that my sheep partake of the natural bounty and the water sources available as conditions change, I am also tasked with keeping the herd within its defined range.
The seasonal movement of livestock with their human tenders is called transhumance, and it is practiced throughout the world. I am one of a global population of fifty million shepherds. My kin may be bronzed Kazakhs, or black-skinned Africans, dark-haired Spaniards, brown-eyed Indians, or olive-skinned Basques, but it’s no matter—our similarities are greater than our differences. They are my people.
In southwestern Afghanistan, the Kuchi nomads move from semidesert areas in the winter into highland regions for summer grazing of their sheep and goat herds, which they raise for meat, wool, milk, and cheese. They also raise donkeys and camels for transportation, so one family may tend to four types of stock. At least one-third of all sheep and goats in Afghanistan are raised in a transhumance system, a natural process of livestock production. These nomad pastoralists keep their animals on the move, which protects local resources from overgrazing.
The Kuchi also raise livestock guardian dogs, large mastiff- or Ovcharka-type beasts that move with the herds and are treasured for their ability to kill wolves, which threaten both livestock and people. The British diplomat and adventurer Rory Stewart had one of these dogs accompany him on his walk across Afghanistan, as recounted in his fascinating 2004 book, The Places In Between.
A local man who escorted Stewart through a mountainous region of Afghanistan carried a gun on the journey. When Stewart asked why, the man explained: “Six months ago on that slope on my way to vaccinate some of the sheep on that hill, I came across the clothes and then the leg of a friend who had just been eaten by a wolf in the middle of the day. Two years ago, five wolves killed my neighbor at eleven in the morning.”
Our continued legal morass of wolf management in the United States is so incredibly far removed from other people, other cultures, who live with wolves in an intimate way. Dueling interests in America have battled their disputes out in the court systems for decades, arguing whether wolves should be managed by state or federal officials, or hunted or not, with one plan and decision seemingly leading only to another lawsuit. Little of the debate has anything to do with the reality of living with wolves on the landscape.
In the twentieth century there was an exodus of humans from Europe’s Pyrenees Mountains, and large parts of the lowlands were set aside for conservation purposes, with reintroductions and expansions of populations of a wide variety of wildlife species, including large carnivores such as bears and wolves. Much of the agricultural use of the mountain region declined, and agriculturalists remaining in the area were faced with wildlife populations that adversely impacted their livelihoods but remained fully protected. Outsiders who value conservation and ecotourism over local subsistence are in effect dictating management regimes to the detriment of the humans who live there. It doesn’t seem like a good path to follow.
Coyotes are our most frequent predator, providing challenges to our livestock protection dogs on a daily basis. Although they are often seen hunting alone for small animals such as voles, mice, pocket gophers, and grouse, they also hunt in packs, especially in winter when pack size can include six or seven animals as they try for larger game. In a study conducted at Yellowstone National Park, wild life researchers found coyotes were successful in taking down adult elk and mule deer in five of nine attempts. The prey animals escaped into water in three of the four unsuccessful hunts. But Yellowstone, some two hundred miles north of the rangeland my herd and I inhabit, is an exceptional place, where the largest coyote pack ever recorded roamed one recent winter, consisting of ten adults and twelve pups. Free from human persecution or harvest, wild life populations have thrived in the park, allowing some populations to expand in size or densities unseen elsewhere.
Mark Twain penned a telling description of the coyote in his western American travel tale Roughing It, calling it “a long, slim, sick and sorry looking skeleton, with a gray wolf skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long sharp face, with a slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking appearance all over. The cayote [sic] is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always poor, out of luck, and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it. And he is so homely, so scrawny, and ribby, and coarse-haired, and pitiful.”
One spring day at the home ranch, my son Cass and I watched a coyote go after a newborn pronghorn fawn in our hay meadow next to the New Fork River. Its mother reacted with a vengeance, striking out at the coyote with her front hooves. From our truck we watched as the doe continued running at the coyote and lunging at him until he escaped into the river to evade her wrath.
Although they can appear large, most adult coyotes in this basin weigh only twenty to thirty-five pounds, with a thick pelage hiding their light bone structure. Even so, coyotes are the principal predator on domestic sheep flocks in the West, accounting for 70 percent of total predator losses. When a sheepman refers to a person as a coyote, it’s the ultimate insult.
Coyotes breed early in the year (January to March), whelping an average of six pups sixty days later. Pups are fed on milk for about three weeks, and then they begin to eat regurgitated food provided by both parents. This is also about the time they begin emerging from the den, which coincides with domestic sheep beginning to give birth to their lambs out on the range.
Pups will begin dispersal at about five months of age, but their home ranges usually remain within their mother’s home range, expanding out as the pups age. According to Canadian researchers, a single home range may be inhabited by a family of two or more generations. The small predators are known to live up to about fifteen years. When I contemplate the knowledge inherent in that coyote family group, inhabiting the same range, generation after generation, I’m awed.
Coyotes are smart, efficient predators. Many stories have been told of them teaming up in groups to hunt together, and there are numerous accounts of coyotes joining in cooperative hunting ventures with badgers. Cunning animals, but social when it’s beneficial.
Throughout the year, we use a variety of methods and techniques to keep the damage from coyotes and other predators to a minimum. Our sheep flock closely together and move as one, which is a predator defense mechanism. (Lone sheep off by themselves become coyote food.) Our rams, which are placed with the ewes in December and remain there through the winter, have horns and know how to use them. Our ewes are big and will defend their young, striking out with their front hooves at a threat. We use both livestock protection dogs and burros. My frequent presence with the herd is also a deterrent. I shoot a lot, making noise to keep predators at bay. We are careful not to leave sick, injured, or dead sheep on the range, and the dogs will clean up the sheep’s afterbirth during lambing, reducing potential predator attractants. We do even more at the home ranch, but we still wind up with problems. Typically it’s with coyotes, but we also have problems with wolves and bears. Yes, even out in the sagebrush rangelands we encounter these predators. Not most people’s idea of large-carnivore habitat, but river bottoms make for prime wildlife migration corridors.
I stayed awake late last night reading, and just minutes after I shut off the light, the coyotes began yowling, calling the dogs out to the hills below my camp. Since coyotes typically try to enter the herd under cover of darkness, this is when our dogs do battle with them; few physical conflicts are seen by human eyes. I listened to hear the outcome of the dispute, but the wind didn’t allow much satisfaction to that end. Within another hour, the wind increased in earnest, such that I curled into my warm bed and hoped that the gusts that were rocking the camp wouldn’t blow us to Kansas or some other distant place. I later learned that a wind gust of more than 110 miles an hour was recorded on a ridge across the basin. The wind certainly wasn’t that bad in my camp, owing to its placement tucked into the hillside.
When I arose to check the sheep at dawn, I found that they were not where I had left them at dusk, although I soon located them, huddled together in the shelter of a swale. All was well, so I left them with their guardian dogs to graze. Within a few hours, the herd wandered over to my camp, bedding in the brush above it, reposing in the sunshine, for a midmorning rest. The ewes are heavy with pregnancy, and lambing could begin at any time, although their official due date isn’t for a few more days.
The wind blustered for most of the day, and the herd grazed in gullies and washes that offered protection from the gales. The range is covered with low vegetation that is high in nutrition but small in size due to the harsh climate. Jim tells me the low sagebrush the sheep currently seem to favor has a lemony flavor and is a rhizome, meaning it grows thick stems both below and above the ground. I drove around exploring the pasture, following the herd. I hiked the narrow passage between two slopes, following behind a small group of ewes to a grassy knoll, from which gurgled forth a spring of cold, clear water in a space the size of a washbasin.
With the blustery weather, there wasn’t much avian activity, although I twice noticed the hardy little kestrel crisscrossing the brush in front of my camp, hunting fast and low to the ground. Its presence gives me joy, for this fierce little falcon is a species I much admire.
Late in the afternoon, Jim arrived to deliver supplies. It was wonderful to see him, but I fear he’ll soon be run ragged with his job, taking care of home, and ferrying supplies to me once or twice a week. He restocked my water supply (scolding me for watering the dogs from my supply rather than from nature’s offerings), delivered groceries and books, and helped insulate a vent in my camp that allowed the gusting wind to enter. His hour-long presence was welcome, but so short. He is worrying less, admires my undertaking, and admits to being a little envious of my life on the range. But it’s because of his support that I’m able to be here, and I look forward to sharing the adventure with him.