A Brief History of the Cattle – Sheep Wars and Why Sheep Are Better Than You Think

History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books-books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe. As Napoleon once said, ‘What is history, but a fable agreed upon? – Dan Brown

Recently I have seen comments on blogs expressing horror at the prospects of sheep grazing on public lands. Comments about little wooly range maggots, ripping up plants by the roots and trampling the range to dust. These well-meaning folks get their information from tainted sources.

There really was a war between the cattlemen and sheep raisers in the very late 19th and early 20th century. It was social, political and too frequently violent. The violence most often perpetrated by team bovine. The sheep raisers lost, the cattlemen won and went onto write the history which was later popularized in our love affair with the Hollywood western movie genre.

The cattlemen were typically tied to a ranch headquarters that raised hay and had facilities to handle cows. This was prior to grazing regulations on public domain, so a cattle rancher would simply lay claim to large areas of public land they wished to graze but had no actual rights to. They protected their domain through water rights claims and intimidation and violence as needed.

The sheep men tended to live a more nomadic existence, herding their flocks over hundreds of miles following the best range and weather conditions. A single herd might range from Wyoming or Montana into southern Nevada, Arizona or California over the course of a year. When a nomadic sheep herd showed up on range a cattleman claimed for himself, conflict was sure to arise, just as it did when a homesteader occupied some parcel the cattleman thought of as his. Actually, it was all public domain, the homesteader had every right to be there and the sheepman was no less entitled than the cattle rancher.

Cattlemen have always been the nobility of the rural west. Being tied to a ranch with a mailing address ranchers quickly exerted great influence over local politics. They frequently controlled county commissions. Before the one man, one vote rules imposed by the Supreme Court in the 1960s, state senate districts were apportioned by county, giving rural, rancher dominated counties outsize influence in the state senate. Prior to the 1913 passage of the 17th amendment requiring direct election of US Senators, state legislatures selected the state’s US Senators. Thus the power of a rancher in the rural west often reached to the halls of power in Washington DC. The die was cast, the cattlemen would win the cattle versus sheep war on the political front.

In 1934, the Taylor Grazing Act, named for Senator Edwin E. Taylor of Colorado became law. Actually, Taylor plagiarized the Act bearing his name. The same legislation had been introduced in 1933 by Congressman Don Colton of Utah, but Colton’s bill failed to pass in the Senate. Taylor re-introduced Colton’s bill after renaming it for himself. The Taylor Act doomed the nomadic sheep herds by requiring ownership of a base ranch near the public lands to be grazed. Only the sheep ranchers that owned base ranches would survive the Taylor Act. As the victors, the cattlemen wrote the history of the war. Cattlemen were cast as noblemen of the rural west and sheep growers were wandering thieves whose herd left nothing by destruction in their wake.

At the time the Taylor Act was passed there was discussion about which agency should implement and administer the new law. It came down between the US Forest Service which had already implemented grazing regulation on National Forests, and the Department of the Interior whose General Land Office was in charge of the public domain. When asked about what was needed to implement the law the Department of Agriculture with the Forest Service estimated it would take several hundred new hires. The Department of the Interior said it could be done with 14 new people. Congress went with the low cost option. Interior’s plan was to establish grazing districts with an advisory boards comprised of local ranchers. These boards would determine which ranchers got permits, where and how large their permit would be. They would also make recommendations on grazing trespass, decide on range improvement project construction. These Grazing Advisory Boards further cemented the power of the big ranchers. Suffice it to say if you were a sheepman or a small homesteader needing a few AUMs, you were not likely to get a favorable decision from the board. Board members were however, incredibly gracious and kind with each other.
Times would become worse for the sheep producers. During WWII there was great demand for wool and meat and the industry did well in the war time economy. After the war, per capita consumption of lamb and mutton declined from nearly five pounds per person per year to about a half a pound today. Most of the western sheep producers were growing a coarse grade wool used mostly for carpets and insulation. The artificial fibers developed for the war effort killed the demand for wool carpets in this country. At the same time as depressed demand for their products, the sheep rancher’s management inputs, hiring and nurturing herders, was becoming more expensive as compared with cattle raising. Most remaining sheep operators admitted defeat and went into the cattle business instead.

Some Advantages of Sheep Grazing

Rather than being a plague on the rangelands, sheep offer several advantages over beef cattle on open rangelands.

First and foremost, sheep are tended and herded on a full time basis. The herder and his trusty dogs move the sheep to where they are supposed to be. Contrast this to cattle grazing as usually practiced on public lands. The most common technique has been dubbed, “the Columbus method.” Turn the cows loose on an allotment and go out several months later to discover where they went. This was not always the case. Cattle ranchers used to hire cowboys who lived out on the range and tended the herd. This type of labor has become too expensive and demanding. Cowboys these days want a comfy bed, under a roof with satellite TV. By herding the sheep it is possible to control the amount of forage utilization on any given area within the allotment. With cattle we tend to see a utilization pattern of very high use in some areas and very little on other parts of the allotment.

Many of our desert and semi-desert ranges are well suited for sheep. They usually have an abundance of brush, favored by sheep and they are not well watered. Cattle in these situations tend to camp out on the riparian areas or near water and don’t get to much of the grazing areas. Sheep can be brought into water and then herded back out on the drier rangelands. In the fall and winter sheep only need to be watered every two to four days. Sheep do well using snow as a source of water. These habits make the sheep much less destructive to the riparian zones and areas around waterholes.  Sheep are not highly selective grazers like cattle. They will eat a greater variety of plants on the rangeland rather than concentrate on a few highly desirable species.

If anything, western ranges suffer from a super abundance of cattle and not enough sheep herds. When an agency proposed to change grazing from sheep to cattle, that is not an improvement. It is simply a management decision made by the rancher, not intended to benefit the range. Changing livestock from sheep to cattle is not anything to rejoice over. Time to get over our dim view of sheep grazing provided by the western cattleman and his propaganda about his cattle saving the range from the ravages of sheep.

Some Caveats for Sheep Grazing

My intent in writing this essay is to rehabilitate the terrible reputation of sheep grazing as it commonly exists. While in many instances, sheep grazing could be an improvement over the status quo cattle grazing, it is hardly a panacea. Like everything, there are cautions and downsides.

First and foremost, domestic sheep are deadly to our native bighorn sheep. Domestic sheep and market hunting, supplying meat to mining camps in the 19th and early 20th centuries are the reason the majestic bighorns, the very symbol of wilderness, were extirpated from most of their range. Thanks to conservation efforts, largely led by big game hunters have established herds of bighorn throughout the west.

Domestic sheep carry respiratory diseases that are fatal in bighorn. Even healthy appearing domestic sheep carry these pathogens. Nose to nose contact between domestic and native bighorns is always fatal to the bighorn. Bighorn rams will approach and attempt to mate with domestic ewes. Current guidelines call for a minimum 10 mile separation between domestic and wild herds. That is a minimum, 20 mile would be much better. The bottom line is domestic sheep grazing should not be employed if there is any chance of contact with bighorn sheep. There are some grazing apologists who argue there is not 100% proof of fatal disease transmission from domestic to bighorn sheep. In science, few things are ever proved to 100% certainty. The odds of mortality for the sheep are greater than the odds of death in playing Russian Roulette. I suspect the grazing apologists would not play that game despite it having much better odds.

The last caveat; for sheep grazing to be better for the range than cattle grazing it must be properly managed. That means employing skilled herders, having them work in conjunction with someone knowledgeable in range science. Herders in the field need to have their camps regularly supplied and moved. All of these are management inputs that require money. The high cost of management inputs contributes to the sorry state of grazing we see today. A cattle rancher who could buy a new pickup truck in 1970 by selling four calves now needs to sell 100 to get that new truck. Selling a pound of beef would put three gallons of gas in the tank and now it is maybe 1/3 of a gallon. The full time cowboy who worked for $400 month plus food and board no longer exists. The cost of management has far outstripped the value received for the product.These same factors affect sheep grazing but for a product with much less of a market. Our per capita consumption of beef is about 57 pounds per year. Lamb is about half a pound. Lamb prices have recently increased, but that is more of a function of declining supply than increasing demand. Raw, unwashed wool from one sheep will sell for about $4.10. There is not a lot of money to be made or pay for expensive management.

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2 thoughts on “A Brief History of the Cattle – Sheep Wars and Why Sheep Are Better Than You Think”

  1. Well! Since the only information most of us have ever heard regarding sheep vs cattle on public lands apparently has been from the cattle industry – its no wonder there has been NO common sense thought that yes, sheep are moved from one area to another & not allowed to obliterate the grazing as cows do. Plus the riparian damage etc. Thats just one more way the “corporate” ranching lobby has pretty much overtaken all others!
    I have wondered before – the sheep vs bighorn problem sounds much like the cattle vs buffalo “problem”. For some reason, not hearing anything about vaccinating any cattle who are grazed near buffalo areas. The only answer has been to harass, move, or slaughter the buffalo even tho there has NEVER been an incident of brucellosis (?) tranfer from buffalo to cow!
    I would assume thats not the case with sheep & bighorns?
    Thanks for the information – always enjoy this.

    “”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hello Maggie, I live outside Zion National Park where the Bighorn v. domestic sheep problem has come to a head. I was here in 1981, just after the NPS reintroduced bighorn (1977) to Zion, and used to encounter The Seven who survived the reintroduction on the Watchman Trail where I regularly lead walks as a ranger. We didn’t think they’d actually go forth and prosper.

      Now, 40 years later, there are 800 bighorn, mostly hanging in Parunuweap Canyon, which has long been off-limits to human use (it’s an RNA–a Research Natural Area–and thank god for that, evidently). A small herd entertains tourists on the East Entrance Drive to the consternation of anyone attempting to get anywhere within a time frame, and another small herd enjoys out-of-park jaunts south toward Colorado City where domestic sheep are still grazed on open range.

      All this is preamble, sorry, to saying: when bighorn and sheep come nose to nose, and they do seem to like each other, they, of course, pass microbes–including pneumonia–for which there is no vaccine or cure. When bighorn tire of life outside the park, they head home, taking with them a contagion that can kill, within weeks, all 800. A couple years ago, Zion began helievacing bighorn to other wild parks both to reintroduce them elsewhere and in hopes of not losing the entire Zion population.

      I don’t think many were relocated before staff noticed park bighorn were coughing–a sign of pneumonia–so rather than risk transporting the disease with the animals, they stopped relocation efforts. Today, they monitor the bighorn for more signs of disease, ask us “locals” to report any sightings in town and esp. near domestic sheep, and have asked residents to double-fence sheep pastures to prevent bighorn jumping the fence to access the herd. Folks in our two small forward-thinking enclaves seem to be supportive.

      But, the threat still exists. Everytime a bighorn encounters a domestic sheep, the entire Zion population, which I think is one of the largest???, is in danger of dying in an instant.

      Here’s a link to Zion’s Bighorn EA for more information:
      https://parkplanning.nps.gov/document.cfm?parkID=113&projectID=51293&documentID=82480

      Liked by 1 person

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