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Stories from the valley

Lucky Enough

Contributed by Dan Macon

My friend and former Sonora High School agriculture teacher, the late Ron Arrington, used to say, “If you’re lucky enough to be in the mountains, you’re lucky enough.” Over the last several weeks, I’ve been lucky enough to spend a fair bit of time in the mountains north of Truckee as part of an ongoing research project examining the behavior of livestock guardian dogs.

flock of sheep

Grazing livestock have traditionally “followed the green” through the seasons. Green forage has greater nutritional value than dry, dead grass. In California, this traditionally meant that cattle and sheep grazed in the lower foothills during the winter and spring, walking to the higher elevations to graze mountain meadows and brush during the summer months. Once the weather turned cold and the rain returned to the lower elevations, ranchers would herd their cows and sheep back to their foothill home ranches. Transhumance, or the seasonal migration of livestock and people between lowlands and adjacent mountains, dates back to the first domesticated livestock thousands of years ago.

flock of sheep

Bob Wiswell, who raises sheep and cattle near Lincoln, tells stories of riding a mule from the family ranch into the mountains above Foresthill each summer, trailing a band of sheep to higher pastures. The late Pat Shanley, an Auburn icon (and my one-time ranch landlord) told me of listening for the sheep bells coming up Baxter Grade outside of Auburn when he was a kid in the 1930s – more sheep moving from the lower foothills to mountain grazing. These ranchers would ship their lambs by rail from a stockyard at Cisco Grove before making the return trip to the foothills with their ewes.

Transhumance has changed with the advent of interstates, livestock trucks, and traffic. Most ranchers who take livestock to the mountains haul them now – only a handful still walk cattle (mostly) to the mountains for the summer. Others (myself included) now “follow the green” closer to home, relying on irrigated pasture to provide quality forage during the summer months. But despite these “advances” (technological and otherwise), most of us still prefer to take the livestock to the grass than vice versa!

flock of sheep

All of this brings me back to my recent trips to the Tahoe National Forest. The Talbott Sheep Company grazes three bands of ewes on several grazing allotments from mid-July through the third week of September each year. For the last three years, I’ve been tracking the movements of their livestock guardian dogs using GPS collars and trail cameras. The Talbott sheep share this piece of rangeland with coyotes, black bears, and occasionally, gray wolves. I’m hoping my research will help identify specific behaviors in their dogs that make them effective guardians. Luckily for me, this means a trip to Truckee every couple of weeks to check on trail cameras and talk to the herders!

This year, the lack of spring runoff and disappointing precipitation means the sheep will go back to the home ranch three weeks early. Sometime around September 1, I’ll join the Talbott crew and help load the trucks that will take the sheep back to the Valley. But for now, they’re (and I’m) still lucky enough to be in the mountains!