Residents of Idaho’s affluent Wood River Valley once considered it a nuisance when sheep would briefly flood their main streets each fall, headed for their winter terrain.
For the past 17 years, however, the annual trailing of the sheep through downtown Hailey and Ketchum has been central to a weekend festival that injects $3.5 million into the local economy, according to a 2012 economic impact study.
Mary Austin Crofts, executive director of the nonprofit Trailing of the Sheep Cultural Heritage Center, also says complaints about the sheep have evaporated since the festival began.
“I think trailing is threatened and the industry is threatened. It’s harder and harder to get (sheep) to where they need to be,” Crofts said. “But that’s why this festival is good for everyone and so important to keep that tradition alive.”
The livestock trail through the valley dates back to the 1920s. Beginning in the 1990s, Crofts helped to build some of the bike paths through the area, obtaining permission from the Gooding Livestock Association to pave portions of the historic sheep trail for recreation. Residents loved the paths but weren’t fond of encountering sheep manure on them, she said.
During the same period, Crofts recalled, the community experienced a building boom, with newcomers’ houses being constructed right along the livestock route used for trailing.
“Everyone started complaining, ‘Why aren’t they trucking these sheep through here?’” Crofts recalled.
Hoping to change perceptions and preserve the region’s history, the local Chamber of Commerce transformed the nuisance into a festival, hosted during the second weekend of October. It’s ballooned into a celebration that draws spectators from around the world. They host sheep sheering demonstrations, sheep dog trials, educational presentations and lectures on sheep history.
“People from all over the world love the idea that it still happens in America,” Crofts said. “When sheep come trailing through here in spring and fall, people stop on roadways, jump out of cars start their video cameras, and it’s a thrill to them.”