The last Sierra shepherds
Yips and yells pierce the dirty air as a flock of 1,400 sheep trample their way through a talcum-colored haze near Prosser Reservoir.
Silhouetted by the rising sun, two shepherds wielding long staffs emerge from the dusty din stirred up by a cloud of agitated sheep and darting sheep dogs. Each of the shepherds’ cries drive the herd closer to its destination – a white livestock trailer.
The woolly throng slowly resigns itself to the direction of Piolin, Oso and Apache – three pointy-eared border collies. Soon four shepherds are working the flock, darting into clumps of wool and bucking legs to snare pregnant sheep identified by a streak of red paint between their eyes.
It’s an unlikely spot to happen upon a bustling sheep rodeo. Less than a minute away from where backhoes, dozers and dumptrucks are busy molding 750 acres of forest into Truckee’s latest golf course and luxury home development, the 150-year-old tradition of Sierra Nevada sheep herding carries on in full force.
Despite the suburban trappings of the new Sierra economy eating into historic grazing lands, these modern shepherds lead a nomadic life guiding their animals across the summer range.
The new Basques
In doing so they keep alive a storied tradition of Sierra shepherds made famous by Basque men from the mountainous border of Spain and France. Pulled from their homeland by the promise of a better life, the Basque shepherds carved out a niche in Sierra Nevada history.
Today, the remnants of their bread ovens, tree carvings and old sheep camps continue to haunt the forests around Truckee. And their work is kept alive by the new Basques, shepherds like Joel Barba from northern Mexico or Pedro Mosquera, who leaves his ranch outside of Lima, Peru each summer to tend ewes in California’s high country.
Barba is busy subduing a sheep with his lasso. His cowboy hat and handlebar mustache frame a stoic face as he hunts through the dust for the 18 mother sheep that have to be shipped home to Los Banos from their Prosser Reservoir range to give birth.
Nearby, Mosquera and Martín Soriano, brothers from Peru, trap the back feet of their sheep with a “gancho” – a long staff with a hook on one end.
A band of cloth wrapped over Mosquera’s mouth filters the choking dust.
Eduardo Pérez, the youngster of the group, grapples his finds with two fists full of wool.
The flock meanders through sagebrush toward Prosser Reservoir dam in the pre-dawn shadows. One by one, each of the painted sheep is prodded into the waiting trailer.
The day is a burst of excitement in the solitary routine of the itinerant sheep herders.
A ram that jumped a fence back in Los Banos and impregnated a number of the sheep earlier than planned is the reason for the bustle. The pregnant sheep are on an unexpected trip home to give birth at the home ranch back in the Valley.
Help from their friends
Normal days find the shepherds casting a watchful eye for lurking coyotes while roaming the sage in nomadic circles through the forage around Prosser Reservoir.
The men have companions. The hulking, white great Pyrenees dogs – bold and alert, bred to guard against the opportunistic coyote – are always nearby. And the slithery, ragged border collies that funnel the sheep effortlessly toward their desired destination keep the herd in a single clump.
The summer work, however, is one of solitude. Early morning walks followed by afternoon naps, tracking their animals to the creek at dusk for a drink before settling in for the night.
Surrounded by a summer’s worth of 40-pound bags of dog food, Mosquera leans back outside his trailer and talks about his wife, four children and farm in Peru.
His gold-rimmed front tooth flashes as he tells of the corn, lettuce and potatoes that grow in the fertile soil of his foothill plot outside of Lima.
He’s planning a baptism for his youngest child as soon as he flies back home this winter. His face lights up as he tells of the party that will follow the baptism, and the Peruvian delicacies that will be shared around the table.
As a Peruvian, Mosquera brings to sheep herding the same qualities that made Basques the guardian of Sierra sheep. Both are imports from a country where the traditions of living off of nature and working intimately with animals have not died off.
The new Peter Jacobsen golf course going in alongside the under-construction lots of Gray’s Crossing seem more foreign to Mosquera than the idea of spending a summer in solitude, tending sheep and fending off coyotes.
“I don’t go that way,” says Pedro Mosquera, waving his hand toward the greening fairways of the new golf course and the sprawling houses along Prosser Dam Road. “There are too many homes.”
Sheep grazing on the high-altitude public lands around Truckee is reserved for companies that win a permit from the U.S. Forest Service. The livestock companies pay a fee for each month an animal grazes on the public pasture.
Permits are coveted and often handed down between generations of ranching families, says Toby Bakos, the range conservationist for the eastern side of the Tahoe National Forest.
Much has changed in public grazing since the days when millions of sheep flooded mountainous Forest Service land in the late 1800s and led naturalist John Muir to refer to sheep as “hoofed locust.”
Grazing allotments, like the thousands of acres around the reservoirs outside Truckee, known as the Boca Allotment, are studied for their capability and suitability for grazing, says Kris Boatner, wildlife biologist with the Truckee Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service.
“The whole goal of the program we are working on right now is to minimize the resource impacts, but keep that traditional use,” Boatner says.
High-elevation pasture becomes coveted in late summer and early fall when the mountains still harbor the moisture that has been sucked from the valley during the long, baking summers.
The Sierra is not lush this time of year either, but as the animals strip the green from the abundant brush they get plenty of nourishment.
“The Boca area in general is really suitable for sheep herding,” Boatner says. “It’s a wide open area and they can graze on the sage and bitter brush.”
The federal grazing program, which loses more money through management costs than it takes in permit fees, helps to preserve valley ranches that often rely on the summer range to continue ranching.
“I think that one of the benefits that the public see is the preservation of that lifestyle and of the open space,” says Bakos. “It makes [the ranches] less prone to being subdivided or urbanized.”
And so, between the private ranches of the valley and the public lands of the Sierra Nevada, the 150-year-old cycle of moving sheep from summer and winter ranges continues.
The quiet roam
It’s after 6:30 a.m. when Barba and Soriano pass long-distance calling cards to Pedro Mosquera and Eduardo Pérez so they can get in touch with their distant families. Barba and Soriano then load into the white pickup and drive off to the valley, towing a trailer full of expectant mother sheep behind.
Mosquera and Pérez stand a while in the morning sun, watching their puppies – apprentices in the sheep herding trade – scamper about in the dust.
Soon the men gather their meager belongings – a cloth to guard their throats from the range dust, jackets and water – and walk their slow, rhythmic gait behind the roaming sheep.
The herd looks like a gathering of dusty white clouds floating through the sage.
For the two shepherds it’s just another couple months of living under an open sky before the winter sets in and they head to the warm, southern lands that they call home.