Rabbitbrush Rambler: Sheep in national forest


In times gone by, when I was hiking or 4-wheeling near the Continental Divide, I sometimes saw flocks of sheep with herders and dogs or a horseman bringing supplies up to a camp. For hikers on trails today that still might happen but rarely few sheep allotments still are used.

When I saw them in the past, the herders usually were from Spanish-speaking households in the Valley or from Mexico or even South America. Farther west, in the Basin and Range region of Nevada for instance, the herders were Basques.

Ernest Wilkinson, in his book “Colorado Living: Eighty-Plus Years,” told about trapping and visiting sheep camps. In the high country of our Southern Rockies, he told about lightning and bears, the big problems for sheep, in contrast to coyotes in the Valley.

The herders usually were in the same allotments each summer, so Ernest got to know them. They always had their coffee pots on the stove and beans simmering, perhaps with a chunk of lamb, and they welcomed the government trapper to set up his tent nearby. After the sheep were bedded down for the night, Ernest set his traps if bears were known to be in the area.

Within the allotment, from time to time as the grass got consumed, the herder and his dogs moved the flock and the camp. Otherwise, the solitary life went on all summer without much change until it was time to head the flock down in the fall.

One entertainment for herders while they were in the high mountains seems to have been constructing small cairns. Perhaps some were to mark different pastures or trails, but the purpose of most really is unknown. You would have to ask a sheep herder why they did it.

On lonely San Luis Pass I once saw a really ambitious project with stone walls a few feet high, perhaps to provide shelter from the wind. Others formed tall stacks that could be seen from miles away.   
Prior to national forests, in 1891 Forest Reserves were established on the public domain. At that time the government and the public were belatedly becoming aware that uncontrolled activities such as logging and grazing were destroying the natural resources. The U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905, supplanting the Reserves.

After the Rio Grande National Forest was created in 1908, thousands of head of sheep and cattle were being summered there, and serious conflicts often existed between the users. The most common grievance was that sheep overgrazed, nibbling right down to bare soil with their sharp teeth, sometimes even pulling grass and weeds out of the ground. Fences were being cut, sheep poisoned or shot, and herders killed. Being mounted on horseback and better armed, the cowboys had an advantage in this warfare, which also reflected ethnic biases.   

These were the conditions when the U.S. National Forest Service attempted to bring order by means of rules, permits, fees, numbers of animals allowed, and rangers who inspected how well the rules were being obeyed. Under the Forest Service’s management, there were separate stock driveways for sheep and cattle, with the higher allotments above timberline for sheep and the lower ones in the forest for cattle and horses.

It is not hard to imagine how unwelcome the new regime might have been on the Forest. The job could even be dangerous for rangers when they came around periodically.

Down in the lower ranges after the mid-1900s, I still saw herders with relative comforts like a sheep wagon and a horse and their faithful dogs, but the numbers were shrinking rapidly. And so were the old-time cowboys with their horses and cattle and their faithful dogs.

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