September 30 is the off-date for most of our Forest permits. Bridger Peak above Battle Pass is one of our highest grazing areas for the sheep in the summer. Alejandro takes the yearling ewes to the top of the Continental Divide. He had a flat tire on his wagon, so German changed the tire before we pulled the camp down the really rocky road to the highway. Alejandro shepherds the yearlings with the help of his border collies, his livestock guardian dogs, and his pet lamb, Solano. We saw snow on the Divide, and glorious fall colors on the trail down.
July 1st is the on-date for the forest permits where our ewes and lambs graze for the summer. While the ewes are lambing at Cottonwood, the yearling ewes hang out in the Badwater pasture, some 40 miles to the north. The ewes and lambs are usually settled on their permits for the summer by the 4th of July. The permit where the yearlings graze for the summer has an on-date of mid-July so it’s their turn to trail. Yearlings can move a lot faster than the five miles per day required by the federal agencies, so they usually move right along. This year was exceptional. Due to drought, very little water was available as we trailed. We discussed hauling water, which is difficult and expensive, but Alejandro said he’d rather make more miles and go from water to water. This meant that one day, the yearlings covered about 20 miles, which usually takes three days. They were tired, but really happy to see that reservoir. They are young and healthy and did fine, but I hope we don’t have to do it again. We rested them in our State Land pasture on the lambing grounds, which had feed and plenty of water, then pushed on to their summer permit. They spend the first few days on our neighbor’s private in-holding. We appreciate the extra grazing, and he values the reduction in grasses for wildfire protection. Alejandro did an excellent job in shepherding them through the dry country.
The reservoir’s in sight below Muddy Mountain
Trailing the yearlings onto their summer permit (Yes, that’s smoke in the air.)
Settled at last on Condict’s. That’s a smoke plume from the Morgan Creek Fire on the right.
Now that the sheep are sheared, it is time to head 40 miles south to our lambing grounds. Trailing was held up a couple of days by stormy weather, but the moisture was welcome. We are pushing hard to get there before we have too many lambs on the ground. Now it’s time to pray for perfect weather, no predators and green grass!
The ewes are eager to migrate to the Cottonwood lambing grounds.
Pepe has picked up the ewes with early lambs and one guard dog.
Most years, we set out on the sheep trail to the wintering grounds on about the same date. It is usually about a five- or six-day trail from our late fall pasture at Badwater to our winter grazing permits in the Red Desert. We leave around Thanksgiving time–grateful that the ewes have come south on the same trail in the spring, met the shearers. trekked to the lambing ground, borne and raised lambs, grazed on the forest, trailed back to the Home Ranch corrals, weaned their lambs, and now head north to winter pasture. It is usually a time when we can take a breath. We pray that the winter is not too hard, that the dry grass is enough to sustain the ewes, and then the rams, as the cycle begins anew.
following the tractor
This year, back-to-back blizzards hit soon after the first two bunches of sheep set out. Some days they have been stranded on the trail and it has been all we can do to reach the sheep and the herders with supplies. The Interstate has been closed, with multiple wrecks and even some deaths. We crossed two bunches in between storms, but have struggled to move them north, breaking trail with the tractor. The weather has paused between storms, allowing us to make progress. We are grateful that the storms have not been unrelenting.
We had to turn south with the last bunch. Their winter pasture on Chain Lakes is snowed under, and we’ve found another, more open, allotment to the south and west. We are trailing down the highway, which must confuse the ewes, whose instinct and habit is to head north. Since we are on the highway, and not the cross-country trail, we flag, fore and aft, to slow the oncoming traffic. Locals are also not used to seeing livestock on the road this time of year, and non-locals are mostly interested to see the sheep, the dogs, the herders and the family members.
The sheep north of the interstate are still struggling to get to Cyclone Rim. They have finally made it to a plowed road, but it is slow going due to all the trucks stuck as they try to reach the energy development in the same areas.
Eamon and Guillermo bringing up the sheep
almost to the gate
Eamon, ready to trail
Wagon, waiting for the day
View from the rear flagger
Wilber and Guillermo putting in at the 18 mile marker
The ewes have made their annual trek north to the Red Desert, where we have wintering ground on the Cyclone Rim and Chain Lakes grazing allotments. These allotments are part of the vast Great Basin, home to Greater Sage Grouse, desert elk, riparian plants and amphibians, feral horses, many many antelope and, part of the year, cattle and sheep. The Great Basin is named because it is a closed basin. To the north, the Continental Divide splits and runs in separate ranges until it meets again about 15 miles south of Wamsutter near the Haystack Mountains. The country south of there–Church Butte, Adobe Town, Powder Rim–is likewise amazing landscape, but it is not part of the Great Basin, the Red Desert. It is always a relief when we safely cross the overpass over the Union Pacific line and the underpass beneath I80 and head out across the open country for winter pasture. We are a week later than usual on the trail north. We had to wait for snow, since there’s not much water on the trail. Like Goldilocks, we want it to be not too hot and not too cold!
The bitter cold and deep snowfall during the past week has seen critters, wild and domestic, on the move. We decided to trail our yearling ewes and old ewes from the Chivington Place to Powder Flat , where they are closer to the haystack. Likewise, the deer, elk and antelope are all on the move. Here’s some of the migrations we saw today.
Yemy heading up the county road
Yearling ewes and old ewes en route to Powder Flat
The guard dogs have their back
Yemy is keeping his adopted wild horse warm!
McCoy, Sadie and Cora moving the sheep
Feral (unadopted) wild horses on the feed line with our cows
Ideally, this time of year, we are done shearing and are on the trail to the lambing grounds, north of Dixon. It is critical that the ewes be sheared before lambing starts, yet this is proving increasingly difficult. It has a lot to do with the really dysfunctional H2A program in the Department of Labor, which facilitates the non-immigrant program for foreign agricultural workers. For us, this includes our valued and essential Peruvian sheepherders. For the shearing contractors, it allows them to hire highly skilled and highly paid sheep shearers, mostly from New Zealand, and sometimes Australia and other countries. The program has become so unwieldy that many shearing contractors have given up, and the remaining shearing crews are having difficulty in getting the wool off the ewes in a timely manner. This has resulted in a backup throughout the sheep herds in the Rocky Mountain West, and most producers, like us, are facing shearing during lambing–a process which is difficult for shearers, sheep producers, and is very hard on the heavily pregnant or recently lambed ewes. Nonetheless, here we are trailing ewes, still in the wool, to the lambing grounds, where we pray our shearing crew will show up very soon, and we pray that we will not have a loss of lambs to pay for the incoherent federal immigration politics.
Late June brings our annual trailing from the lambing grounds, north of Dixon and Savery, to our Forest grazing permits on the Routt and Medicine Bow National Forest. We start the sheep on the trail for the Colorado permits first, since it is a longer drive. All has to be planned throughout lambing and docking, so that the oldest lambs are in one bunch, and ready to go first. It is about 40 miles for the sheep who are heading for Farwell Mountain, near Columbine, Colorado.
We try to stage the sheep so that they are one day apart, which makes it easier to move the camps as we go along. We count the sheep through the government corrals on the Stock Driveway. This gives us an accurate count as we head into the Forest, and is required by the Forest Service as part of our permit rules and regulations.
It is also our last easy chance to corral the sheep and dock any lambs which have been born since the last docking, put paint brand numbers on the marker sheep, and pull out any bum lambs who need to go to the Home Ranch for TLC.
Once we leave the corrals, we are officially on our summer country (even though the Colorado bunches still have days ahead of them on the trail). It is time to face the bears!
working sheep at the Government Corrals
Pepe, Bahnay and Salomon putting numbers on the marker ewes
Salomon, sheep and guard dogs headed for Farwell Mountain
guard dog leads the way
Ewes drinking at the ditch near Three Forks
Filomeno on the job
almost to the Routt Forest
dust along the road
heading into a tinderbox
Modesto, Bahnay and Riley
Oscar at Haggarty Creek, Medicine Bow National Forest
Patrick and Sharon O'Toole are ranchers in the Little Snake River Valley on the Wyoming-Colorado border. They represent the fourth generation on the six-generation family ranch. The O'Tooles raise cattle, sheep, horses, dogs and children on their high country ranching operation. The transhumance operation stretches from north of Steamboat Springs, Colorado to Wyoming's Red Desert.
Pat has served in the Wyoming House of Representatives, the Western Water Policy Commission, and is currently President of the Family Farm Alliance, representing irrigators and water users in the western United States. He is active with several conservation and agricultural organizations.
Sharon is a writer and poet. She writes extensively on western issues, and the relationship between landscape, animals and people. She is widely published as an author, essayist and editorial commentator.
Pat and Sharon have three children. Their daughter, Meghan and her husband Brian Lally, live on the ranch with their children, Siobhán, Seamus, Maeve and Tiarnán. Meghan has also served on the Wyoming Board of Agriculture and the Environmental Quality Council, She and Brian are active in community service.
Daughter Bridget lives in Phoenix with her husband, Chris Abel, where she works in health care communications. Chris works in the food distribution business.
Son Eamon and his wife Megan live on the ranch with their sons, McCoy and Rhen. Eamon is a horseman and natural resource manager, and Megan is a flight nurse. Eamon is a member of the Wyoming Beef Council and is active in the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.
The blog traces the activities and life on the ranch, from the mundane to the fabulous.