John Muir is one of WC’s heroes. Not just for his writing, which is very good. But because, one-on-one, he was easily the most effective preservationist in history. In many senses, he is the father of the National Park system. It was Muir who persuaded President Teddy Roosevelt to create Yosemite National Park.
WC was told, probably back in undergraduate school, that Muir loathed sheep and called them “meadow maggots.” Apparently, that’s untrue. Muir did complain about “hoofed locusts” and said, “As sheep advance, flowers, vegetation, grass, soil, plenty and poetry vanish.” But he never called them “meadow maggots,”1 and he had an appreciation for the role of true maggots in the natural environment. He even worked as a shepherd earlier in his life.2
All this comes to mind because the sheepherders of central Idaho are bringing their flocks down from summer pastures in the mountains to winter ranges in the lower valleys. Along West Mountain Road, on the east side of Cascade Lake, it’s common to encounter large flocks moving alongside or even on the road.
WC and Mrs. WC encountered such a flock this past weekend. The flock had apparently just come down from West Mountain and was grazing in a field alongside West Mountain Road.
WC likes sheep, but recognizes the immense problems sheep and other introduced species can create in the arid intermountain west. Watching one or two sheepherders and two or three dogs walk several thousand sheep in a compact herd is a wonderful thing. But it’s very easy for sheep to overgraze their habitat. Combined with the introduced cheatgrass – technically Drooping Brome – sheep and cattle have massively altered the ecology of this part of the country. Sheep and cattle graze preferentially on native species, leaving the introduced cheatgrass as the last thing they’ll graze. As a result, you find vast stretches of sagebrush country denuded of everything but cheatgrass.
As you can see, everything but the cheatgrass has been grazed down to dirt. The cheatgrass has been mostly left alone. Cheatgrass contributes greatly to the increasing number and severity of wild fires. It burns hotter and more readily than native grasses. And it recovers from range fires more quickly. As a result, some 60-200 million acres in the arid west are now mostly cheatgrass.
Along with cattle, the sheep significantly contribute to the cheatgrass problem, but perhaps they can serve a useful purpose, too. In Carson City, Nevada, experimental programs are under way to use sheep to manage cheatgrass, grazing them in high-risk wild fire areas in an effort to graze down the cheatgrass. Of course, the sheep only eat the cheatgrass when everything else is gone. Which may already be the case in the Carson City area.
Ultimately, of course, the sheep problem is a people problem. Too many sheep, lazy sheepherding that leaves the sheep in a pasture too long, grazing without consideration for that year’s rainfall, allowing grazing where it shouldn’t happen. It’s unfair to blame the sheep. WC has encountered more than one high mountain meadow grazed down to dirt, coated in sheep dung, and any creek trampled to mud and laced with turds.
It’s a complex problem. But it’s also destroying wilderness, contaminating streams and devastating native sagebrush habitat and species that depend upon it. Muir would not be impressed.