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A Comeback?

Written by Dennis Sun
       It is no secret that over the last 30 years Wyoming’s sheep industry has declined. Now we may be quietly seeing an increase in sheep numbers.
         That comeback is most likely due to the Mountain States Lamb Cooperative and its value-added marketing exposure. The effort seems to have had a bolstering and solidifying effect on the market.
     Predators, despite recent headway in that arena, may be why the movement isn’t more rapid or visible. While creation of the Animal Damage Management Board and funding of local predator boards has helped, work remains to be done.
    I’ve heard some producers who’ve switched to cattle are considering a return to sheep ranching. Maybe all those sheep dog trials are helping build interest. Whatever the cause, we’re hearing more about Wyoming’s sheep industry, the lambs and the wool, than we have in many years.
    Bryce Reece, Executive Vice President of the Wyoming Wool Growers Association, says interest is high for the upcoming Sept. 9 ram sale in Douglas. No doubt that’s a strong indicator for one of Wyoming’s most historic businesses.
    I also believe people across America are enjoying lamb more often. We all remember those, my late father-in-law included, who claimed they would never touch mutton or lamb again after eating it during World War II. But they enjoyed a good lamb chop when they ate out. I barbecue lamb shoulder steaks a lot and receive compliments from those who never eat lamb. They are amazed how easy they are to cook, just like a hamburger, and they’re an economical item at the meat counter.
    Wyoming was founded on sheep production and if you think about it our range is better suited for sheep than cattle. I grew up eating both beef and lamb, but never was around sheep until we bought some in the ‘80s. Just image, sheep on the Sweetwater, but it worked. The good part was that they made money; the bad part was that it seemed every time we worked the sheep it fell on either the hottest or coldest day of the year.
    We are fortunate Wyoming was founded on sheep. When homesteading land, the sheep producers homesteaded everything to provide for sheep camps. The cattlemen just homesteaded the land close to water and fought over the rest. I think more federal lands or BLM lands resulted from what was then cattle country.
    Early sheep men controlled the coyote populations and, along with the cattlemen, didn’t tolerate wolves. When the sheep numbers were the highest, so were sage grouse numbers.  Was it because predators were better managed? I think so. Maybe the government needs to pay us to raise more sheep. They certainly help control weeds. In Canada and other places they pay to have sheep graze some mountain areas.
    Sheep, like cattle, can be a great tool to manage our ranges. We also know that a good sheepdog is the best tool in managing sheep when labor is scarce, just as it is in raising cattle. Even my grandfather, a dyed-in-the-wool cattleman, only wore wool pants and shirts. My other grandfather, a sheep man, most likely made more money and worked less raising sheep. Although their differences were great, what they held in common was greater. They both helped to form a Wyoming we are all proud of.
- Dennis