More than 1,000 sheep released on Rabbit Ears Pass for annual grazing (with video)

Aside from tire marks in the gravel lot and a few piles of horse dung, there is little evidence of the commotion that took place at the Dumont Lake parking area just feet off of U.S. Highway 40 on the morning of Saturday, July 16. 

At 8:45 a.m., three tractor trailer trucks rolled up carrying about 950 ewe and their lambs. Each truck had three layers of sheep that were unloaded using a metal ramp. The sheep dashed and leaped toward the nearby field.

By 9:45 a.m., the sheep were no longer visible from the road, herded off to graze closer to the Basecamp Trailhead area. 

Nick Maneotis, owner of Maneotis Ranch in Craig, said his family has been bringing sheep to Rabbit Ears Pass for about 35 years. He has three permits in the Dumont Lake area on both sides of the highway that allow him to bring his sheep to the high-elevation area each July. The animals will wander around about 31,000 acres before Maneotis collects them in September. 

“All the great grass and cool weather, the lambs grow and do really well,” said Maneotis. 

Guided by a herder and guarded by dogs, the sheep will munch on grass, weeds and various flora between U.S. 40, Steamboat Resort, and Highway 14. Maneotis said a fully grown sheep can eat up to 10 pounds of hay a day and likely consume a similar amount of grass.

“We try to minimize all the fire hazard,” Maneoties said. “That’s what our main deal is, to reduce the fuel for fires.”

A lamb leaps after being unloaded at Dumont Lake parking lot on Rabbit Ears Pass on Saturday, July 16, 2022.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

While the sheep like some wildflowers, they don’t eat others. Even with 1,000 sheep in the area, the wildflowers on Rabbit Ears Pass are not threatened, especially since the herder moves the animals around frequently. He also tries to avoid trails to lower the chance of conflict with the public, which has increased in recent years.

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“Since COVID hit two years ago, I’m not exaggerating, there’s got to be double the amount of people that are here because everyone is going outdoors,” Maneotis said. “It was never like this before.”

Maneotis will unload another 800 or so Suffolk and Rambouillet sheep on the south side of the highway in the coming weeks that will make a similar loop before dropping down the east side of the pass. 

A new threat

Lambs gleefully leap and stay close to the herd of about 950 ewe at Dumont Lake parking lot on Rabbit Ears Pass on Saturday, July 16, 2022. Nick Maneotis’ herd will graze around the area until September.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Maneotis is very concerned about the pack of wolves that have taken up residence in Jackson County, about 30 miles, as the crow flies, from Rabbit Ears Peak. 

There were eight known wolves in the Walden pack, although only seven have been spotted lately. The pack has been deemed responsible for the death of multiple cattle and a dog at a North Park ranch.

Adding to the concern of nearby ranchers, the three GPS collars that were on members of the pack have stopped transmitting. The mother and father wolf had collars on when they naturally migrated to Colorado and Colorado Parks and Wildlife collared a female pup from the breeding pair in February 2022. All three have stopped functioning, which is not unusual.

A wolf pack can have territory ranging from 50 square miles to 1,000 square miles, according to the National Wildlife Foundation.

“That is very concerning that we don’t know where they’re at or where they’re traveling to,” Maneotis said. “There’s been other sightings. Some have been confirmed, but some others not. From here to Walden, the way a wolf would travel, is probably less than 30 miles. They could come right through it. It’s a very big concern.”

Of course, there are always hazards of bringing sheep to Routt National Forest, as there are coyotes, bears and mountain lions. Predators not only kill a portion of sheep each year — ranging from 1-10% depending on the year — but they scare and scatter the herd as well. A scattered herd is easier to prey on and harder to gather in the fall. 

The guard dogs are there to scare off predators and protect the herd. As of Saturday, just one shepherd mix accompanied the herd. The white Anatolian-Akbash shepherd will be joined by one or two other dogs soon, said Maneotis.

Encountering the sheep

Recreators may encounter sheep on Rabbit Ears through September, as Nick Maneotis and crew unloaded about 950 ewe and their lambs at Dumont Lake parking lot on Saturday, July 16, 2022.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The dogs take their job of protecting the sheep very seriously, but Maneotis brings his most people-friendly canines to Rabbit Ears since it’s a heavily trafficked area. 

If someone sees the sheep herd from afar, Maneotis suggests going around them to avoid the animals and guard dogs. However, if someone were to encounter a dog, they shouldn’t feel threatened. 

“Just talk to them. These dogs, if you talk to them, they’ll be alright,” he said. “The dogs that come here are not aggressive toward other dogs, but if you see the sheep, if you can go around the trail further, that’s your best bet to avoid conflict.”

Dogs usually cause more chaos than humans do when encountering a herd’s guard dog. In National Forests, dogs must be on a leash in designated recreation areas and under leash or vocal control, otherwise. Sheep, the noises they make, and the dogs around them can be very compelling to even the most well-behaved dogs. 

Sheep and their guardian canines can be found in North Routt and the Flat Tops Wilderness area as well. Some dogs are more friendly than others, so recreators should be prepared to take a wide berth around herds. 

If anyone encounters a single or small group of sheep in the Rabbit Ears area, they should call dispatch or the Forest Service. In the fall, Maneotis will post signs with a number to call if people see loose sheep after the herd has been collected.

A herder starts moving the sheep away from the highway and towards the Basecamp Trailhead at Dumont Lake parking lot on Rabbit Ears Pass on Saturday, July 16, 2022.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today

No matter what, there are always a few strays by the end of the year, wandering about somewhere.

Maneotis recalled collecting them from just under the mountain coaster at Steamboat Resort one year, and finding them on golf courses and in neighborhoods just off the west side of the pass.

Marianne Sasak has helped track down strays every fall since meeting Maneotis and his father ahead of a dog trial years ago. She’s helped round up sheep across Routt County.

“We’ve sledded them out in January,” she said.

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