Western ranchers have long relied on foreign workers to tend sheep on the open range. But increasingly, sheepherders are literally walking away from their flocks — and their work visas — in pursuit of more lucrative jobs.
sheepherders do is hard, the lifestyle is austere, and the pay is
low — about $800 per month, plus food and a sheepwagon to
sleep in. And though that’s more than the men can make at
home in Peru or Mongolia, it’s much less than they can earn
working in the West’s boomtowns, where jobs abound on
construction sites and oil and gas rigs.
Bryce Reece of
the Wyoming Wool Growers Association estimates that 20 Wyoming
herders have jumped ship this year, leaving ranchers shorthanded
and sheep unguarded for days at a time. The association is lobbying
for an amendment to state law that would slap a $10,000 fine on
herders who quit with fewer than five days’ notice. Anyone
who lures a herder away with promises of a better job could get a
Republican State Sen. Gerald Geis cast the
lone vote against the new law when it was considered in committee.
He says, "You can’t hold Americans for five days if they want
to quit." And federal laws already penalize foreign workers who
violate the terms of their visa.
"These guys know what
their contract says," says Cokeville rancher Fred Roberts, whose
herder deserted his sheep this year. "We just want them to abide by
what they’ve committed to."
The state Legislature
will consider the amendment during the next session, which begins