Sheepherders flock to better-paying jobs

  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.

The work 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 $20,000 fine.

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 in February.