Opinion: Those who graze livestock on the forest and recreationists must be kind to one another
Sharon S. O’Toole
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
I’d like for the good residents of Routt County to consider their neighbors.
Folks in Steamboat Springs largely see the recreation industry as their bread and butter. When you walk down the street, you see tourists, bicyclers and vacationers from all over. In this year of the pandemic, it seems everyone wants to enjoy the outdoors.
Routt County is more than tourism — its economy also includes the struggling coal industry and the once and always agricultural community. Remember that these folks are your neighbors — your neighbors who are here if it doesn’t snow, if the restaurants can’t fully open, if the river can’t host rafters.
We are some of those neighbors. I like to tell people that we raise cattle, sheep, horses, dogs and children. When you visit the Routt National Forest and see sheep or cows, they might be ours. We’ve always tried to get along with the recreating public and avoid the most popular camping spots with our sheepwagons. It gets more difficult all the time. Lots of traditional spots have been permanently closed, and this year especially, the available spots are full.
Earlier this summer, one of our long-time sheepherders, Modesto, became ill with flu-like symptoms. We sent a young inexperienced herder up to watch the sheep while we took Modesto to the doctor, where he received a COVID-19 test. We brought him home to the ranch headquarters where he quarantined in a cabin while we awaited the results.
Let me tell you about Modesto. He has worked for us on H2-A visas for more than 20 years, coming and going from Peru as the visas required. He is a father and grandfather. He leaves his family so that he can work, send money home and give his family members a better life, including education for the children. No comparable jobs exist in Peru.
I asked Modesto if he might have been exposed to the coronavirus because I knew he had been with his sheep in the forest and not interacting much with anyone else. He said that on the Fourth of July, a camper had accosted him because he did not want the wagon, Modesto, nor the accompanying sheep, horses and dogs near his chosen campsite. He told Modesto that the sheep could wait for three days to graze, so that his camping trip would not be disturbed. This apparently included much shouting and spit-talking.
After a wait of 10 days or so, we got the results. Negative. Thank God. Modesto was better by then and anxious to return to his sheep. The sheep, like Steamboat Springs, have been harassed by bears all summer, and he was worried about them.
A few days later on a Saturday night, we received a call that three of our herding dogs had been picked up by campers, taken to Steamboat and turned over to the Sheriff’s Department as abandoned. The deputy was obligated to take them to the vet before they could go to the animal shelter. The vet pronounced them healthy and well cared for. I went to the shelter the next day — instead of swimming with my grandkids in the river — and paid to retrieve our dogs.
This is the first time we’ve had herding dogs taken. They were at the sheep camp in the heat of the day, resting. The “Good Samaritans” told the deputy they were abandoned and neglected. The camp had water barrels, solar panels and dog food in clear sight. They showed the deputy a picture of the camp. He told them, “That’s a sheep camp, and those are sheep dogs.” He did not, however, tell them to return the dogs to the herder, who by now was frantically looking for his missing dogs.
Every summer, we have livestock guardian dogs, usually big puppies, taken. These dogs live with the sheep, and sometimes, the herder is not nearby. We socialize our guard dogs — those are the big white ones — so they are friendly to people. Often those people feed them, then decide they are abandoned, haul them into the shelter—and, oh by the way, offer to adopt the poor things. The young dogs are usually with the sheep and their mothers, who teach them the tricks of the guardian trade.
I am asking that we be kind and respectful of one another. The sheep and cows on the forest are not raping the land. They are providing a shield against catastrophic fires while fertilizing and seeding. They are providing your property tax-paying, grocery-buying neighbors with a way to make a living in Routt County, and they are supplying food and fiber to Americans.
We are all neighbors here. Please look at your agricultural neighbors with a fresh eye. Be kind.
Sharon Salisbury O’Toole is a rancher, writer and poet. Her family has stewarded the same landscape in the Little Snake River Valley, along the Wyoming-Colorado border since 1881.
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Thanksgiving is here, and the holiday season is now in full swing. In what has been a year full of hardships and unexpected outcomes, 2020 has certainly tested our nation’s resolve.