FORT HALL, Idaho — Henry Etcheverry’s sheep graze throughout an area of eastern Idaho the size of Rhode Island.
To access new terrain each season, the second-generation Basque sheepherder’s bands walk great distances along historic livestock trails, called driveways, that often follow rural roadways and pass through towns.
The tradition, known as trailing, is as old as the West, and remains common practice in states with open spaces such as Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado and California.
Nostalgic onlookers often stop to photograph the passing sheep, and in Sun Valley, Idaho, trailing is even cause for a community celebration.
As western populations continue to grow, however, trailing becomes increasingly challenging. Sheepherders must deal with busier roads, homes built on farm fields where sheep previously fed on stubble, environmental conflicts and a public with no patience for livestock.
More frequently, ranchers are choosing to avoid the hassle and paying to truck sheep across certain stretches where they once walked.
“It’s the heritage of the West,” Etcheverry said. “This whole area here has been over 100 years with sheep and cattle. It’s being reduced little by little.”
The U.S. sheep and lamb inventory — 5.34 million head, according to the USDA’s January estimate — is less than one-tenth of its peak size in the 1940s.
On an early November afternoon, Etcheverry’s sheep packed a corral on state land abutting the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, waiting to be loaded onto trucks.
Prior to last fall, he would spend three days walking the Pole Line Trail across the reservation, covering the 50 miles to winter grazing ground in the Big Desert west of Blackfoot.
Trailing fee increases imposed by the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes prompted the change.
“I’d be taking down at least 5,000 sheep this year at 30 cents a head per day,” Etcheverry said, adding that penalties are added if sheep move too slowly.
Just before they enter the Big Desert, Etcheverry’s sheep spend time grazing on alfalfa stubble in adjacent fields.
For hay grower Dewey Stander, Etcheverry’s grazing payment translates into Christmas gift money. More importantly, the sheep remove cover for voles and mice.
“It doesn’t seem to hurt the hay, and it does seem to clean (fields) up so there’s less food for the pests,” Stander said.
Stander’s one requirement is that sheep arrive before snow falls, having learned through experience that if the ground isn’t frozen and sheep remove snow insulation, the temperature shock can kill hay.
Aside from the loss of farm land, changes in farming practices have also made trailing more difficult. Etcheverry recalled Idaho sugar beet growers used to leave beet tops in fields as a prime nutrition source for his sheep. Nowadays, they disc the material into the soil.
Etcheverry’s sheep remain in the Big Desert until Jan. 1, when he trails them to lambing sheds in Rupert, making several stops to graze on alfalfa stubble along the way.
He estimates his sheep now walk two-thirds of the trek from their summer range, about 5 miles west of the Wyoming state line, to Rupert and are trucked for all but one-third of their return trip in the spring.
Though many motorists took photographs, one man had no patience for Robert Ballard’s sheep as he trailed them along a roadway near Idaho Falls on a recent morning.
“He wouldn’t slow down, and I thought he was going to plow through them,” said Ball, who walks sheep 150 miles from Caribou National Forest summer allotments in Soda Springs to winter ground in the Big Desert. “I said, ‘Just a minute,’ and he opened the door and said, ‘Get the damned things out of the way!’”
Though some residents may consider sheep on their roadways to be a nuisance, Idaho law protects controlled trailing of sheep or cattle on any state highway, excluding freeways. It’s a law Etcheverry personally tested in a legal case that made it all the way to the Idaho Supreme Court in the late 1970s. The high court granted compensation for more than 120 of Etcheverry’s yearlings that were killed when a truck failed to stop for his trailing herd.
On busy roadways, Etcheverry uses extra ranch hands.
Terreton, Idaho, ranchers Cindy and Jeff Siddoway began trucking sheep on a portion of their spring trek five years ago, due to traffic concerns.
“There’s been a big increase in traffic,” Cindy said. “Last spring, we had a car plow in and kill 100 head of sheep.”
Their switch to trucking ended an informal tradition for Newdale, Idaho, residents, who watched from front porches as the Siddoway sheep passed through town. Some even brought lemonade to the ranch hands. Siddoway bands still trail more than 100 miles in the fall.
Concerned that trucking companies have historically been ill-equipped to handle sheep, the Siddoways have purchased three trucks.
Even in the open highlands of California, more producers are now trucking their sheep, said Lisa Eidman, executive director with California Wool Growers Association.
Concerns about domestic sheep spreading diseases to big horn sheep have resulted in lost grazing permits — and longer trailing paths to avoid the wild animals. Many producers have opted to truck sheep instead, Eidman said.
“Mostly where folks are able to be on Forest Service and (Bureau of Land Management) land up in the high country, that’s where we have big horn sheep interface,” Eidman said.
In 2011, Montana ranchers successfully fought off proposed trailing restrictions backed by environmentalists.
Dillon, Mont., sheepherder John Helle explained the Gallatin Wildlife Association and Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project pushed the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department to require a thorough environmental review before allowing livestock to trail through state Wildlife Management Areas.
Helle, whose long-established, 60-mile livestock driveway crosses a mile and a half of a management area, said requiring a Montana Environmental Policy Act review for trailing would have also opened the door to lawsuits alleging failure to follow procedures.
Several Montana livestock driveways cross management areas.
“I don’t think they were all that concerned about the trailing activity itself but viewed it as a way to get to us,” Helle said.
In response, the sheep ranchers submitted a bill, which sailed through the state Legislature and was quickly signed by the governor. It requires only that producers notify the state before crossing through management areas.
The livestock industry’s Public Lands Council is currently backing legislation at the federal level to protect trailing from National Environmental Policy Act reviews. The Grazing Improvement Act, which grants trailing of sheep or cattle a categorical exemption from NEPA, passed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on Nov. 21.
Peter Orwick, executive director of the Denver-based American Sheep industry Association, is optimistic the bill will become law in 2014.
“NEPA is just a flash point for environmentalists to attack the process for their ultimate goal of removing grazing altogether,” Orwick said.
Brothers Mark and Nick Martinez, of Moxee, Wash., were among the few sheepherders in their state still trailing until they finally gave it up in 2010.
Into the mid-1990s, they grazed their sheep throughout the U.S. Army’s 327,000-acre Yakima Training Center. Concerns about potential impacts on sage grouse — a bird the federal government is considering for protection under the Endangered Species Act — forced them out. However, the Army allowed them to continue trailing through the military reservation en route to their private lambing grounds to the south.
Each year they were expected to trail through the area faster, which was too hard on the sheep.
Their sheep still walk between farm fields for winter grazing on stubble. Even then, Mark has found the public to be impatient with livestock.
“Here until a few years ago, the state patrol would stop traffic for us. We can’t even get that scheduled any more,” Mark said. “We’d have to hire a private contractor.
Residential property owners throughout Colorado’s Western Slope eagerly welcome Ernie Etchart and his sheep to their property when he trails through. His visits save them a fortune in property taxes.
Colorado law allows land owners who allow temporary grazing to claim the agricultural property tax exemption.
“Money talks. When they’re able to get a tax break, it opens up lands that would probably be closed to grazing,” said Etchart, of Montrose, Colo.
Like Idaho, Colorado protects the right to move livestock on public roadways. Etchart owns a truck, nonetheless.
“It’s almost getting to where it’s easier to truck them than to trail them because you’ve got so many cars on the road,” Etchart said.