Hendrickson shares history of sheep in Wyoming at the Trails Center in CasperWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Casper – “Wyoming’s sheep industry has been an important segment of the state’s economy,” stated Wyoming Wool Growers Association Executive Director Amy Hendrickson.
Hendrickson spoke about the history of sheep in Wyoming during a presentation at the National Historic Trails Interpretive Center in Casper on Oct. 10.
“Originally, Wyoming was just a highway for sheep. A lot of them came out of northern California and Oregon,” she said.
Thousands of sheep were driven eastward across the country through the state of Wyoming.
“In 1866, Major Kimball of Red Bluff, Calif. trailed large bunches of sheep across Idaho and Wyoming, all the way to the Missouri River. He would trade them for mules all along the way,” she noted as an example.
As sheepherders moved through the state, they realized that the Wyoming landscape provided excellent forage and rangeland for their animals.
Hendrickson commented, “Wyoming’s plains provide highly nutritious forage and good shelter for sheep during the stormy, winter weather. The mountain pastures provide excellent summer grazing. Wyoming is really ideal for sheep production.”
Unlike cattle, sheep adapt well to the diverse grazing conditions found throughout the state, and they are able to utilize forages that cows ignore.
“Despite the ongoing myth that continues to this day, sheep and cattle can graze the same areas with proper management,” she noted.
Also unlike cattle, sheep eat snow and drink water from melting snow and ice.
“This allowed producers to utilize areas like the Red Desert. In fact, the Red Desert area became a very popular stopping point for sheep during their travels east,” she remarked.
Flocks were often kept in the area through the wintertime to recuperate and recondition before moving on along the early trails.
“We hear a lot about the cattle trails, but sheep drivers also ran into a lot of the same hazards,” continued Hendrickson.
Predators, for example, proved to be a challenge, as they do to this day.
“Predatory animals like wolves, coyotes, bobcats, eagles, ravens, bears and even domestic dogs were a huge source of loss for sheep producers and sheep drivers as they were trying to move across the country,” Hendrickson said.
Poisonous plants could also be deadly to sheep, including woody aster and larkspur.
“A 1911 bulletin from the Wyoming Experiment Station reported millions of dollars of sheep losses due to woody aster, and that still remains an issue to this day. We have to be really careful with sheep in that regard,” she commented.
Foot-and-mouth disease, scabies and other diseases were a problem as well.
“Then, there were also the range conflicts. The sheepherders and their sheep were really sitting ducks because one herder would be responsible for anywhere from 1,000 to 2,500 sheep. There were large groups of cattlemen who would go in and kill all the sheep,” explained Hendrickson.
In 1902, 150 masked men attacked 15 different flocks of sheep, killing 2,000 animals. One herder was killed, many other herders were driven out of the county, and surviving sheep were scattered.
“Arrests were rare and even if they did occur, convictions were even rarer,” she stated.
Similar events were common until the Spring Creek incident in 1909, when 15 masked men attacked a sheep camp near Ten Sleep, killing two wealthy and well-liked woolgrowers and their herders.
“Of the seven people who were arrested, two of them turned state’s witnesses, and the remaining five were convicted to various sentences ranging from three years in prison to life in prison,” she explained.
Weather, management of the range and public lands issues also contributed to the challenges that sheepherders faced and still face today.
“In 1902, representatives from 10 counties gathered in Cheyenne to form a state association to combat the masked men and address issues such as scabies and lobbying issues in Wyoming and Washington, D.C.,” Hendrickson remarked.
The Wyoming Wool Growers Association was officially established in 1905 and remains active today, carrying on the tradition of representing the sheep industry in state and national government.
“Though cattle were established first in this state, the sheep numbers were higher than the cattle industry’s numbers for many, many years,” mentioned Hendrickson.
Early on, sheep were used primarily for food, but over time, wool became much more important. Wyoming is still known for top-quality wool production.
“The largest shipment of wool ever to be reported as shipped by rail out of the state was 800,000 pounds, and it went to Boston,” Hendrickson noted.
Although demand has decreased over the years, wool is regaining popularity as a fiber that is durable and fire-retardant. New technology has also helped to reduce issues of itchiness and shrinkage of wool fibers.
“The history of the sheep industry in Wyoming is huge,” Hendrickson added. “This is just a scratch in the surface.”