In Loneliness, Immigrants Tend the Flock

Sheep Ranchers Claim Paying Minimum Wage to Workers Would Put them Out of Business.

Domestic sheep carry disease dangerous to bighorns and humans
Domestic sheep carry disease dangerous to bighorns and humans

This is an important article :

In Loneliness, Immigrants Tend the FlockThe New York Times

* Also, check out Captive Labor.

Environmental Costs

Domestic sheep ranching on public land is subsidized in many ways – environmental costs associated with the activity are largely covered by you and I – our tax dollars to slaughter predators that feed on untended sheep, blade otherwise unnecessary roads, build fences, abate weeds etc;  Our public lands leased at remarkably below market value, our bighorn sheep herds decimated by disease spread from domestic to wild sheep, our stream-waters rendered undrinkable, our public landscapes denuded precluding/depreciating habitat that might otherwise support untold numbers of wildlife – including big-game.

There are also the direct subsidies collected by sheepman – millions of tax-dollars for wool and other Ag subsidies.  But despite all of the ways that you and I prop up this destructive use of public land, their industry groups continue to maintain that if held to the same environmental and fair-market standard as nearly any other industry – even minimum wage for workers – they’ll go under.

Costs to Human Health, Safety, and Dignity

When consideration for the environmental impact of an activity is so easily subordinated to “custom and culture” or the unfounded claims of economic contribution of an activity, it isn’t much of a stretch to take the next step and dismiss the true costs to humans.

Warning featured on 'Interagency Visitor/Travel Map - Southwest Montana East Half'
Warning featured on 'Interagency Visitor/Travel Map – Southwest Montana East Half'

Take Q Fever as an example.  How many people realize that domestic sheep herds grazed on public lands pose a risk of a bacteria to recreationists and laborers that is considered possibly the most infectious disease in the world ? It’s even described as a potential biological weapon.

Alvaro Bedoya transcribes an account of one sheepherder’s experience with illness in his must-read essay Captive Labor:

One day, I fell sick and my bones ached… and I had a very strong fever. I asked the campero [manager] to visit the doctor. He said, “Go to your tent and don’t come out.” I asked him [again] and he just gave me three pills and told me, “Go to your tent and don’t come out.”

And I wanted to see the doctor, but the money wasn’t enough. I couldn’t leave, anyway, not without the campero’s permission. I tried to cure my fever with some plants I picked… a friend of mine showed me how… but I just kept on shaking. It didn’t stop until [three days later].

Nowadays I try to keep myself warm, but sometimes during the lambing season you have to be up all night, or so early in the morning that it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. I just don’t want to get sick again. Maybe the campero would take me to the doctor this time.

The same is true of labor.  Sheepman have been getting away with providing substandard working conditions for their laborers – indentured servitude – and paying below minimum wage for 24 hour/day 7 days/week labor as described both in the NYT article and Captive Labor.

Given all the costs to our environment, wildlife, the public-dole, and the most basic labor standards – to human rights – It’s time to pull the cord on this destructive public-land sheep-grazing industry.






  1. kt Avatar

    Thank you for posting this, Brian.

    This shines a light on the true character and brutality of the western public lands sheep ranchers – a very small number of pampered, grossly subsidized (with OUR tax dollars) destroyers of watersheds and wildlife. Are THESE the stewards of the earth that Interior Secretary and rancher apologist Ken salazar was bloviating about to Newsweek when he bloviated about ranchers being the original “stewards” of the earth, or something?

    Despicable. Why didn’t the New York Time just call the herders slaves? Some aren’t being paid, and they do not even have warm clothes to endure the Wyoming winters. WHEN will the Obama administration crack down on this form of human bondage – for which the welfare sheepmen pay a munificent $1.35 a month to graze five head of sheep and however many lambs they can suckle on our public lands?

    And … my heart goes out to the dogs, too.

  2. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    The sheep operators just hate it if you can speak Spanish and interact with the herders; or do something like bring them a coat.

    . . . and do you think the owners of the sheep tell the herders how to avoid losing sheep to wolves?

    If a woman gets to know the herders, the word will be spread by the operators that she is a whore.

  3. Anthony Criscola Avatar
    Anthony Criscola

    This is a national disgrace. I’m sure our public officials read the Times, but will they do anything about it? Probably not.

  4. chuck parker Avatar
    chuck parker

    Ranchers think it’s OK to treat sheepherders based on the the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, but they drive around in 2008 trucks. Their ranch homes have 2008 satellite TV. Computers, dishwashers and clothes dryers. What hypocrites.

    $750 a month = $25 a day, = $3.13 an hour for an 8 hour day. But sheepherders work a 24 hour day. That’s a little over a buck an hour. Of course you normally pay time and a half for anything over 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week. Ranchers are paying sheepherders slave labor rates. From 1938.

    Of course ranchers would argue that it’s a tradition. Part of our western heritage.

  5. Ken Cole Avatar

    It was also tradition to shoot them “Injuns” on sight. Tradition is not synonymous with Right.

  6. Rick Hammel Avatar
    Rick Hammel

    No one has mentioned the very small trailers that the herders are forced to live in, called sheep camps. They are about half the size of a normal 13 foot camping trailer, without the normal amenities of a bathroom or kitchen. I look at them as inhumane.

Subscribe to get new posts right in your Inbox

Brian Ertz