Rock Springs, WY – In the early 1900’s, home to over 6 million sheep, once the wool capital of North America, now home to the Rock Springs Grazing Association.
It was established in 1907 by a group of ranchers to ensure winter range for their sheep flocks against transient bands that migrated through their territory eating all the winter feed. A collaborative effort by a group of forward thinking ranchers purchased odd numbered sections of land owned by the railroad. Together these holdings created a guaranteed 2 million acre winter grazing ground for the ranchers who purchased shares in the group. Although the number of head wintered here is down to 250,000, challenges for this association remain. Some of these are challenges faced by the industry itself: fewer numbers of sheep create marketing challenges, predators are a continuing issue, labor is scarce, government regulations are sometimes short sighted and overbearing. Some challenges are specific to the inter mountain west. Large herds of elk and wild horses compete with sheep for feed and the perceived conflict with the big horn sheep population has place restrictions on access to grazing land. Down the road the RSGA faces other issues. Multiple land use pressures such as mineral extraction, oil and gas exploration, solar and wind energy options are decisions they have, and will continue to make. Above all others, however, is water. It is a current challenge as they face a historical drought in this already arid land, but they know the issue will not go away or be easily solved. The face of the western sheep industry reflected in these ranchers gave us a glimpse of the surprising productivity of this very different landscape, some of the adversity they face and their practical, creative ability to look into the future. Their strength of character and pride in their past will serve them, and the sheep industry well.
As much a part of sheep production in the west as the landscape is the need for dogs, both livestock guardian dogs and herding dogs. Cat Urbigkit, who facilitated our meeting with the Rock Springs Grazing Association, gave us some insight on the value and role these unique animals play in safeguarding herds of sheep and cattle in this predator-rich environment. Cat also set up a meeting with a local rancher who trains and uses herding dogs extensively. Laura Taliaferro-Pearson is a school bus driver, the inventor ponytail hats, and a rancher who demonstrated some of the talents of her Border Collies with us.
Late afternoon found us headed for beautiful Park City, Utah and the last day of our busy tour. Historic Main Street in Park City was a great way to end the day and provided a multitude of great places to eat. The smoke from the nearby wildfires that have plagued the west, while visible as a pink haze on the horizon at sunset, was not a problem on this warm, pleasant night.