In a Sow’s Ear 5-24-10 |

In a Sow’s Ear 5-24-10

Bloody carnage accompanied by the cries of the doomed is considered a good, almost divine ingredient if the butchery is instigated by wolves. Picture a high-mountain meadow where bands of sheep graze. Imagine yourself a sheepherder responsible for caring for the flock.

You’re a light sleeper, so when the Great Pyrenees guard dogs bark an alarm, you’re on your feet, rifle in hand. What predator is out there?

You come upon a scene of devastation. Sixty sheep lay with hamstrings severed, with throats torn out. A river of blood soaks into the earth as a pack of wolves rip and tear flesh from the animals – some still alive, bleating pitifully. You can only shoot over the heads of the wolves to scare them off. Government regulations say you cannot kill a wolf. You must “prove” the deaths were caused by Mr. Wolf. “Proven” deaths will be “reimbursed” by Defenders of Wildlife. What a joke. You are “reimbursed” for fewer than a third. Later, you are totally ignored.

How long do you guesstimate before all livestock grown for food will be outlawed? Sheep numbers in the United States stood at 5.7 million in 1903. Today, there are fewer than 400,000 in the country. Wool clothing is in short supply. At one time, Sweet Grass County, Montana was the biggest wool-producing center in the entire nation.

Since the world was born, Mother nature, in her mysterious way, has created a supreme balance between grazing animals and forage. In the mountains, sheep eat broadleaf plants and weeds that other animals do not.

All is changing. Sheep are no longer permitted to graze in wilderness meadows. The last drive occurred in 2003 when the Allestad sheep ranch (of Sweet Grass County, Mont.) trailed a thousand head into the Beartooth-Absaroka mountains. The event did not go unnoticed or unrecorded. History will know how sheep ranching “used to be” because of a documentary movie called “Sweetgrass” that was filmed and produced by husband and wife team, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash. The movie was named one of the year’s best nonfiction films in the New York Film Festival in January 2010.

An unsentimental elegy to the American West, “Sweetgrass” follows the last sheepherders to trail their flocks up into Montana Absroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. Without commentary, this astonishingly beautiful yet unsparing film reveals a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans, clime and landscape, and vulnerability and violence are all intimately meshed.

Many of the scenes can give you a shiver of awe, delight and simple joy. You can almost hear a symphony played by the gods of the wilderness. Vast green-carpeted valleys sweep up against mountains whose peaks seek to kiss the sky.

You watch black and white Border Collie dogs do their job of keeping their sheep charges bunched or moving forward. You’re almost as alarmed as the herder who, in the dark of night, uses his rifle to frighten away bears intent on having a lamb and ewe snack.

You have a chance to find out a little of what it means to be a sheepherder as you watch him saddle up and ride to keep his woollies in their proper area; see him at the end of a long, long day as he relaxes in a tent warmed by a small “sheepherder” wood-burning stove.

And above all, you see the flowing cloud of a thousand sheep as they are driven up into the mountains in early summer, graze the meadows, and finally head for home in the fall.

“Sweetgrass,” the movie, receives rave reviews wherever it’s shown. To watch it allows you to see – and almost be a part of – history as it happens. To find out more, please go to

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