When I married and came to live in northern Wyoming back in the 1960s, more than 300,000 domestic sheep grazed the Bighorn Mountains. But few ranches survived the following decades; empty sheep-wagons parked in a few back yards are what remain of that proud industry. Our family is among those who no longer raise sheep, though we keep telling the stories that keep our history alive.
Here in the Shell Valley in spring, we and our neighbors "shed-lambed," meaning our lambs were born inside a giant shed. In other places, the practice is to lamb "out" on the range. Either way, if a ewe lacks sufficient milk to raise a set of twins, her extra lamb is grafted onto a different ewe, while the ones left over are bottle-fed and raised by the ranch kids. Bum lambs can be the cutest and the most aggravating of all the Lord's creatures.
One year when our kids were small, they had six or seven bums they'd named, fed, tended and kept alive contrary to a sheep's stubborn determination to die. By summer, the lambs weighed about 80 pounds and followed the kids like house pets all over the ranch. Those bums were everywhere -- in the flowerbeds, the yard or even the house if somebody left the door open.
Our ranch payday came in August, when we shipped the market lambs straight off the mountain range. At the Battle Creek corral, we'd sort a thousand or so lambs away from the ewes and then trail them down several miles where they could be loaded on semi-trucks. It would be a trying day, since mistakes could result in extra "shrink" or loss of pounds, thus dollars, on the lambs.
We expected trouble at a half-mile of huge boulders with a trail winding steeply through them. After all was said and done, nobody would admit to creating the plan of action, which was to use the bum lambs as Judas goats. In the plan, the kids would lead their favorite pets and the other half-dozen bums would follow, and then the other thousand. I still remember that beautiful sight when we started them down the trail, looking like a scene from Heidi.
The plan fell apart immediately: The sheep took one look at the rocks and began to mill. Everything then turned into bleating pandemonium, with the herder yelling, the dogs barking, the kids crying – me watching helplessly from the pickup at the top of the pass. The children couldn't even drag their pet lambs off the first ledge -- the animals escaped and were swallowed up in the big bunch. My husband, Stan, finally grabbed one of the bums, wrestled it down the trail and somehow, all the sheep began to follow like the sheep they were.
The trucks were waiting at corrals near the Shell Ranger Station. The kids ran from pen to pen looking for their bums. In a thousand look-alikes it was impossible. The chute-gates closed and the trucks pulled away.
To make matters worse, the sheepherder had found a bottle of whiskey he'd stashed for the occasion, and he was swigging down Southern Comfort and mourning the loss. "Poor little things," he said. "Yup, by this time tomorrow they'll be hangin' on a meathook." Naturally, this made the children cry even harder. I tried to tell them that we'd find the bums at the scales, where the buyer would weigh the sheep and write the paycheck, but we were a gloomy crew heading off the mountain in the pickup.
When Stan got home, he had to tell us that he'd failed to find the bums. "I tried," he said. "I really tried. I looked through every pen. I just couldn't find them. I can't figure it out."
We sat down for supper, but nobody was hungry, and the kids kept glaring at us. When the phone rang, Stan jumped for it, eager to escape. We heard him say, "You did? Really?"
Well, it seemed that all the bums were fine. They'd split off from the flock and were grazing the lawn of the Forest Service's ranger station. Smart bums.
In the Shell Valley now, only a couple of farm flocks remain. The lambing sheds are dilapidated; weeds grow up in old corrals. Sheepherders don't frequent local stores to cash their paychecks. Occasionally we see a shearing set-up and sometimes we even see a band of sheep trailing through the Bighorns.
I have great respect for those sheep ranchers who keep making it work. And I wish them good luck with the bum lambs.
Mary Flitner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She ranches near Shell, Wyoming.