Ranching Feature: Sheep industry changes, but survives

RBC I In the 60-plus years that I have been privy to the sheep industry in Rio Blanco County many things have changed and much has remained the same.
I know that feeling is the same for the other more than 60 still in business, namely Pat and Ila Sturgeon, Sam and Cherie Robinson, Bill and Laurie Robinson, and Butch and Karin Theos of Swallow Fork Ranch, and my sister Renae and Paul Neilson.
When we were kids, there were 70,000 to 75,000 head of sheep that walked through Meeker and sidestepped Rangely every year. Their owners’ names will forever be imprinted in my heart: Rosenlund, Livingston, Seely, Jolley, Halandras, Mahleres, Atwood, Davidson, Etchart, and those still represented in the sheep industry, Theos, Sturgeon, Robinson, Inda, and Gozuetta. Sheep still trail through Meeker and around Rangely, but the numbers are around 20,000.
Why, when the lamb produced in this area is a premier product and the wool is still the cleanest and whitest in the country, have the numbers dropped so drastically? There are many reasons: Predators are a huge factor in trying to stay in business; the continual fight with radical environmentalists and animal rights activists another; the price of land being so high that it encourages sale, and prohibits most young people from buying, the prices paid for our products versus the prices that we pay for pickups, fuel, herders, groceries, etc., and, of course, this industry is the most labor intensive of all in the livestock production field and many people just don’t like to work that hard anymore.
This county used to have a Rio Blanco County Woolgrowers Association and a Rio Blanco County Woolgrowers Auxiliary. Both organizations were very active in promoting lamb and wool and working to better the industry. Two of the biggest annual events in this county were the Woolgrowers Banquet and Dance, held in March every year and the Woolgrowers Barbecue held in September. These events were fundraisers and promoted eating lamb and wearing wool. The day after each of these events people would call our house to be put on the list for tickets for next year.
When I returned to the ranch full time in 2001, it was a different story. There was no longer an auxiliary and the association’s membership was down to five. I believe the only reason the association was still in existence was to have an entity that could contract with USDA-APHIS-WS in order to maintain some sort of predator control. No one can use poison — Amendment 14 took care of leg hold traps, they canceled the spring bear hunt, and the predators have increased beyond anyone’s imagination. Now we are looking at wolves entering the picture. So what do we do?
Those range producers who were still in business in March 2003 were quite surprised to find that we had new folks at our annual meeting. I had looked around and saw 20 sheep here and 100 there and knew that these individuals were sheep producers, just on a smaller scale. We reorganized officially, with new bylaws in March 2006, as the Rio Blanco County Woolgrowers Association. We are taking a positive attitude about our industry. We work together on things like community shearing day. And we are once again promoting our wonderful lamb and wool. We do the annual lamb barbecue at the Meeker Sheep Dog Trials and we have a lamb kabob to raise money for FFA and 4-H lamb and goat awards at the county fair. We are trying to set up a program to purchase wool yardage for anyone who wants to sew their own garment and enter the county fair and the Make It Yourself with Wool Contest. And this year we are working in conjunction with the Rio Blanco County CattleWomen and doing the Fourth of July livestock barbecue on the courthouse lawn.