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Rugged isolation, a way to a better life

Rugged isolation, a way to a better life

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BRIDGER-TETON NATIONAL FOREST -- Before first light, Pedro Rojas Castillon stepped out of the canvas tent he shares with his half-brother. He separated his horse, Negra, from the six others, mostly pack horses, used to relocate the camp when it's time to follow the sheep to greener pastures. The horses' hooves stomped the ground and the bells around their necks clanged, helping the brothers keep track of the animals in the dark.

Pedro's brother and only companion, Firman Rojas Casas, helped him saddle the horse.

The day before, more than 100 sheep had strayed from the herd of 2,000, wandering into a forest of pine trees and aspens surrounding the meadow in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. They'd have to be gathered before the light grew brighter and they scattered more. Coyotes spent the night howling, and Firman worried some of the lost lambs may not have made it to morning.

He stayed in the camp, heating water to make coffee over the small wood stove. The larger herd would have to be moved soon enough.

The brothers are short men with dark skin, made darker by years working in the sun. They came here from Peru to herd sheep, moving them from meadow to meadow and making sure those that stray are brought back. They wake every morning before the sun rises, working until the last rays sink below the hills covered with wild pink geraniums, yellow mule's ears and pale-green sagebrush.

It's here, deep in the forests of southwest Wyoming, linked to the world only by a bumpy two-track road, where Pedro and Firman keep alive a tradition of the West. They have no cell service, their electricity comes from a solar panel and a car battery, and horses are their only transportation. They live with the sheep 365 days a year.

They are not trying to relive days gone by. They're building better futures for their families.

The old West

Sheep behavior can often be predicted. They lie in the shade when it's hot and wander when it's cold. They eat at night under a full moon, but stay put until morning when there is no moon to light their way. Three Great Pyrenees/Akbash dogs live among them to protect them from coyotes and bears. 

"If the sheep are not full when night comes, they will wander way over the hill during the night and eat," Pedro said in Spanish.

"When it's raining they wander more."

Beginning in the late 1800s, the sheep industry grew quickly in Wyoming, reaching more than 3.5 million sheep by the 1930s and '40s. Wool was used for uniforms in both world wars. By the 1950s, the industry started a slow decline to fewer than 500,000 sheep today.

The large herds that remain are minded largely by sheepherders like Firman and Pedro. Most are from South America, spending the year with sheep thousands of miles from their families back home.

"They're really important to us and we trust them with a lot," said Truman Julian, owner of Julian Land and Livestock, one of the largest remaining migratory sheep ranchers in southwest Wyoming with about 10,000 head of sheep. He employs Firman and Pedro and 19 other Peruvians.

Julian still sells wool for about $20 a head, but his cash crop is lamb for meat at $200 an animal. The meat supplies a growing demand for ethnic food on the East and West coasts.

In the summer, his herds graze on land leased from the U.S. Forest Service. In the fall, winter and spring, sheep move as far as 170 miles east of Kemmerer, grazing on a mixture of private, state and federal lands.

Managed correctly, migratory herds do little damage to the land, but they need herders to prevent over-grazing, Julian said.

For two and a half months each summer, Pedro and Firman herd in the mountains, moving the sheep onto meadows and gathering them to move again. They then drive the sheep from Kemmerer into an early winter range and eventually through the Red Desert. There, the brothers are separated, and Firman herds rams alone for about two and a half months.

Firman and Pedro chose this life of isolation, though not because they crave the solitude. They're here because the $750 a month they earn with the sheep is more than they could make in Peru, paying for water and electricity at home and sending their children to school.

No other workers

On Aug. 2, it took Julian more than an hour to drive to Pedro and Firman's camp in his red Ford truck. The grizzled sheep rancher's headquarters are about five miles north of Kemmerer in southeast Wyoming. The camp is another 20 miles northwest on paved road, 15 miles on dirt into national forest and several more on bumpy two-track. He has 10 Forest Service leases, and some herds move as much as 70 miles into forest land.

He's been making this trip and ones similar for decades, resupplying the South American sheepherders. He or his daughter, Trudi, come every two weeks, bringing whatever his herders request: tins of spam, potatoes, carrots, onions, bell peppers, eggs and cookies. He also brings bags of rice, a staple in the Peruvian diet.

Julian, 66, stepped out of his truck and greeted Pedro and Firman in Spanish. Both speak only a few words of English.

"Visto coyotes?" Julian asked, wondering if they'd seen any of the predators that, along with black bears, kill between 400 and 500 of Julian's lambs and ewes a year.

Pedro shook his head. They heard them singing, though.

As a young man, Julian lived out here with the sheep just like his father and grandfather before him.

Julian's grandfather, a miner from England, migrated to the West as a boy with his brothers. He bought sheep and moved to southwest Wyoming in the late 1880s. 

When his grandfather owned the business, Americans herded the sheep. By the 1970s, Julian's father, along with many other agriculture workers, couldn't find Americans to do the work. The United States had established a visa program, the H-2A visa, and ranchers started hiring Latin Americans, first from Mexico and later from Chile and Peru.

Julian now brings in more than 20 Peruvian sheepherders every year, each allowed to stay up to three years at a time, though Julian usually lets them go early to give them six months at home.

He hired his first Peruvian about 20 years ago. That herder brought his brother and then another brother and several friends. They all worked so well that Julian continued hiring Peruvians.

If an American applies for the job, Julian has to hire him or her first. One hasn't applied in more than four years, and that guy quit after two weeks.

"I'm not sure if it's money or what that made people stop herding," Julian said.

"But talk about cowboys, these guys are on horses 365 days a year."

Most of his workers come from word of mouth. Men tell their friends and family to apply, and more arrive. If a herder stays with Julian for six years, he can bring whomever he wants back to work with him.

That's how Julian found Pedro, 35, and Firman, 45.

Pedro has a metal-rimmed tooth in the front that shows when he smiles. Thick, black, curly hair pokes out from around the bottom of his baseball hat. He's skinny, nearly too thin for his clothes, a result of days spent running, walking and riding horses.

Firman is only slightly stockier than his younger brother.

After Julian chatted with the brothers, he gave a gift to Firman, an old cowboy hat the sheepherder said made him look like a Mexican rancher.

Julian climbed back in the super-duty Ford with more camps to check. The brothers stood and watched the truck bounce away.

An isolated existence

Pedro and Firman's camp sits on the top of a crested hill, giving them a view of the low creek and meadow and onto the next ridge. Their house is a canvas tent stretched over bare earth under a canopy of pines.

It's a mobile home of sorts; they can pack everything on horses and move in under an hour.

Two wooden boxes, an arm's length from two small cots, double as storage and their kitchen counter. A wood-burning stove sits in the middle of their front yard -- another dirt patch circled by a simple log fence to keep the horses away. Chairs would be just one more thing to pack, so they sit on their cots to eat and listen to their DVDs of traditional Peruvian folk music.

Five border collies, four adults and a puppy, lie around camp, always alert.

Border collies are natural herders. Instinct makes them want to keep sheep grouped together. Training teaches them to move the animals with the sheepherder.

"They live with us and work hard with us," Firman said.

"Without them I would cry."

The three white guard dogs spend every day and night with the herd, protecting the sheep from mountain predators. They aren't named like the collies.

Pedro and Firman carry bags of dog food with them each morning and night. "Wayki," they call, meaning "brother" in Quechua, a language of the native peoples of Peru. When the dogs come, the brothers pour piles of dry food on the prairie. Like the herders, the dogs' bodies are thin and sinewy.

In Peru, Firman was a farmer, and his wife sold liters of milk.

Once, in the late '80s and before he had a family, he worked for a sheep rancher in California. Now he has three kids -- ages 22, 18 and 11 -- and is herding to pay for books and uniforms and to save for college.

His wife told him he could leave, if reluctantly.

"When I call home she says she is OK, but sometimes, she is not happy," he said.

He plans to stay for two contracts, or six years. Then he should have enough money saved to keep his family afloat and give his children a proper education. He keeps a picture of his daughter in a colored envelope inside a plastic bag protected in a CD case. She's dancing a traditional Peruvian folk dance with her cousin.

Pedro worked in a copper mine back home. It was dangerous and didn't pay much.

He's been here seven years and has two more to go. When he gets home, he hopes to marry his girlfriend.

Last year, after a trip to Peru, Pedro bought a small solar panel. It's connected to a car battery propped on logs, hooked to a hand-held DVD player.

After Julian's visit, Pedro watched a home movie of his cousin's wedding on the contraption. Neither he nor Firman attended the wedding two years ago because they were herding sheep. Scores of people moved through the tiny screen as he watched the festivities. He'd seen it dozens of times, he said, and waited for the camera to pan over his mom and dad.

The first time they were on the screen it was for only moments. The second time, he scooted forward on his cot to watch.

"Wait," he said.

"They're coming up, you'll see my parents again in a minute."

The camera rested on his parents holding hands in a line of people, each moving to a band playing folk music. The camera moved on and Pedro sat back, waiting for the next image of home.

A way of life

The morning sun had finally reached the deep valley floor on Aug. 3. Pedro and Firman separated a dozen or so sheep from the main herd, riding their horses around the group, corraling them in the small, flat area near a spring. Hills blocked their way on one side and a creek on the other, forcing the main herd down the valley as the collies worked to keep the small group intact.

Neither the dogs nor the horses needed instructions. Each had its own role, and even the puppy yapped at the ones that tried to escape. The small group of sheep bellowed and grunted.

Pedro took out his lasso and spun it over his head at a sheep. He missed. Regrouping, he spun again, this time catching the 1-year-old sheep around its back legs.

Firman jumped off his horse and tackled the sheep, spinning the rope around its legs and holding it to the ground.

"She's fat. She must have eaten a lot last night," Pedro said.

He joined his brother on the ground, kneeling on the sheep's body and neck.

He took out the long butcher knife Firman brought from camp and slit the sheep's throat.

In the mountains, lamb is the only meat available to Firman and Pedro. They can't refrigerate chicken or beef, so Julian allows them to kill as many sheep as they need for food. They slaughter one every two weeks.

Pedro cut down the center of the body, showing Firman how to peel off the sheep's skin. Steam rose from its body in the cool air.

They learned to butcher animals in Peru, where they raised and slaughtered their own food.

Leaving the head and innards in the field for the guard dogs, they loaded the dressed carcass in a canvas bag, then on Pedro's horse. Pedro walked it back to camp and hung it on a tree near their tent.

It would hang for a day or so before they would salt and dry it.

Pedro sliced off a section of meat from its hind quarters for breakfast, though it was closer to lunch time when they were finally ready to cook.

Firman seasoned the thinly sliced meat with chili pepper, garlic salt, cumin and Valentino's hot sauce. Pedro placed it on the hot wood stove cradled in tinfoil. It sizzled, sending aromas of spice and lamb into the mountain air.

With the sheep settled and lunch finished, Pedro lay down for half an hour.

The sheep are, in some ways, like their children. The brothers' lives revolve around their needs and movements, including how much sleep either can grab.

Before dinner, the flock needed to be moved again. Firman had placed salt on a hill to help the animals digest their food, and Pedro had to help them find the piles.

He went on foot this time with a couple of collies to herd the strays. The sheep were close enough he didn't need a horse.

Firman worked on dinner: lamb cooked down in a stew with potatoes, rice and tomatoes.

The brothers are a team, but they do more than their respective jobs. They care for each other, and the sheep, in the backcountry.

They are companions in a time of extreme loneliness. They talk about family and home and sheep and the forest. Of Pedro's many brothers, he chose Firman to work with him here. With Firman, he could tend and live with thousands of sheep.

After dinner, Firman washed the dishes and Pedro dried. In the darkness, they ducked back into their canvas tent, closing the flap and listening to the coyotes howl.

Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at (307) 460-9598 or christine.peterson@trib.com.

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