Logan Herald Journal via Associated Press

LOGAN, Utah (AP) -- If you drove through Sardine Canyon on a recent Friday morning, you might have seen a bit of a spectacle.

Like, a 1,800-sheep-walking-down-the-highway kind of spectacle.

Each October, the Jensen family of Box Elder County leads nearly 2,000 sheep the 23 miles from grazing lands on the Cache/Weber border to the family farm in Corinne. It's a two-day journey that takes planning and includes a law enforcement escort. It's also one some say is coming under increased scrutiny, and some local traditionalists are worried the custom could be done away with.

But if you want to know the story of the Eph C. Jensen Livestock company's annual sheep trailing tradition, you should know it starts a long time ago.

More than 80 years ago, Ephraim Jensen, the son of an immigrant carpenter in Box Elder County, took a job working for his cousin in the sheep industry. It was really more of just something to do, says Lane Jensen, the grandson of "Eph," since Eph had been discharged from the military and struggled to find work.

That changed when the cousin sent Eph to Nebraska with a group of lambs to sell. Eph sold the lambs, sent the money back to Utah but stayed. He started buying and trading lambs in eastern Nebraska and later in Chicago before returning to Utah.

"He was able to acquire enough money in cash that he came back here in roughly 1927," Lane Jensen says, adding that his grandfather then started planning what it would take to run a big sheep farm.

With a friend in Ogden, Eph purchased property just north of Liberty on the border of Weber and Cache counties. He began moving his sheep there for the summers and, by the mid-1930s, leading them back each October to property in Box Elder County, where he lived.

Over the years, the operation grew to include hundreds more sheep. By the time Eph died in 1987, his son Karl Jensen and grandson Lane Jensen knew how to continue the tradition. Karl has since retired, but he still helps Lane run the livestock company. Lane is also assisted by four full-time sheepherders from Peru.

The trailing of the sheep takes just two days, but those days are when Jensen's way of life becomes the most public.

On Oct. 20, he began moving the 1,800 sheep the 11 miles down the mountain and rested them that night near Mantua on leased property. Early the next morning, the sheep were on the move again, this time with help from Utah Highway Patrol and the Box Elder County Sheriff's Office, as they made their way through the canyon, down 600 East and 600 South in Brigham and then westward to Corinne. By about 2 p.m., they'd made that day's 12-mile journey.

It's a display that attracts some attention, especially when it coincides with the annual Utah Education Association break from school.

"Some get a little annoyed with it, but it's amazing how many people get ahead of it, get out, get their cellphones and cameras out and take pictures," said UHP's Lt. Lee Perry, who helped Oct. 21.

Jensen said the family has always used the same "trail," which runs through some private and some public property. There have rarely been problems except for in the last few years when he's heard whisperings of tension building among the residents who live along the streets he guides the sheep down.

"The biggest issue has been with the town of Mantua," he said. "New homes have been built near the area where (the sheep) spend the night. Some people still love it that they're there, but some are upset. There have probably been times the sheep have stepped on their flowers or their lawn. We try to prevent that, but things happen."

Perry said as far as the highway patrol is concerned, the traditional journey taken by the sheep is OK. In fact, he sees the event as something the community should treasure.

"I understand people might get upset, but it's one day out of the year," he said. "And this is the backbone of our country -- agriculture. Without these people, when they go out of business, where are we going to be as a country? We need to support our farmers."

The Jensens spend the money to truck the sheep up to the mountain each spring because they worry the new lambs would struggle on the long walk. But it's a significant cost to truck the animals, and Jensen said he worries if they truck them one fall he would give up all rights to his family's long-used trail.

"Our understanding is that using that trail is a right that we've established with prescriptive use," he said, which is similar to adverse possession or continuous use by someone for at least a certain amount of time. "There are laws on the state books that deal with this."

To keep that continuity, the Jensens have never deviated from their trail.

"We're limited to use the same route," Lane Jensen said. "We have to use the same route we've established, which we do diligently."

Jensen has never applied for a permit to move his sheep and worries that if he does, he gives up his right to use the trail by admitting he needs to ask for permission.

Lisa Duskin-Goede, director of the Bear River Heritage Area, says it's important to the community the Jensens be allowed to continue their annual trek.

"As a heritage area, we feel that the heritage we enjoy here needs to be protected and preserved," she said.

Part of that is due to tourism, but Duskin-Goede said her job also entails educating locals on the region's traditions. She notes that other communities -- notably in Ketchum and Hailey, Idaho -- have turned the annual event into an all-out celebration dubbed the Trailing of the Sheep Festival that contributes to local tourism and culture.

Neither Duskin-Goede or Jensen know whether next year's trailing will go smoothly or encounter bumps. But Jensen doesn't necessarily want to be a maverick in the legal world. He'd simply like to continue what his father and grandfather have always done.

"There's a little bit of pride and tradition in doing things in a nostalgic way," he said.


Information from: The Herald Journal,

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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