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  • Jan Flynn

Sheep On The March!

It’s an Idaho thing, and I’m so there for it

photo by author

It’s spring, and the sheep are on the move

Not like it’s all their idea, of course. Sheep and ideas are generally acknowledged to be strangers to one another.

But for almost 140 years, sheep have been making their seasonal, guided migrations here in Idaho.

It happens twice a year. In spring, ranchers move their herds from their winter pastures to their summer grazing grounds in higher elevations of the Boise National Forest.

The wooly critters will spend weeks on the journey, closely guarded by watchful shepherds both human and canine as they munch their way across sagebrush-studded foothills and up into the Wood River Valley.

When there’s a highway in their path, sheep get the right of way. Roadways are cordoned off, traffic stops, and first responders are on hand to make sure the herd makes its way safely across the road.

In the fall, they head back down.

That’s a huge deal in Ketchum, Idaho, the picturesque town near Sun Valley (also famed for being where Papa Hemingway died, but that’s another story).

Ketchum’s Trailing of the Sheep Festival, often voted one of the top 10 fall festivals in the U.S., draws a big crowd every October.

I’ve never been, but I hear it’s a hoot. Or, a baa.

In Idaho, sheep are big

I mean, they’re the same size as sheep in other states. But sheep play an outsized role in Idaho’s history and, to some extent, its identity.

In the 1880s, Idaho’s vast swaths of rugged, open range made it ideal for raising sheep, an opportunity that was not lost on hardy entrepreneurs like Scottish immigrant Andy Little, the “Idaho Sheep King,” who arrived in 1884 with two dogs and $25. By 1935 he owned one of the largest ovine operations in the nation with over 100,000 sheep.

The need for skilled herders drew immigrants from the Basque Country — and has a lot to do with why Idaho boasts the largest population of people with Basque heritage of any state in the nation.

(Sidebar: no trip to Boise is complete without a visit to its famed Basque Block, where you can visit a cultural center, a museum, a specialty market, and feast on local Basque delights — don’t miss the croquetas at cozy Bar Gernika. The “World’s Largest Celebration of Basque Culture” Jaialdi is also held in Boise every five years — the next one is late summer 2025, so make your plans now.)

By 1918, sheep outnumbered humans in Idaho six to one

In the 1930s, well over two million sheep ranged across the state. 

These days Idaho sheep number less than 200,000. But they still loom large in the state’s culture — and no more so than when it’s time for them to cross the road.

As a transplant to the Gem State, there are certain experiences you sort of have to have before you can legitimately call yourself an Idahoan and, yes, that’s the actual word. These include dining on finger steaks, getting stuck in traffic behind farm equipment, and colliding with a deer.

Watching the sheep trailing is one of those things. Up until this spring, despite living here off and on since 2008, I had yet to witness the semiannual spectacle.

This weekend I set out to correct that

I arose before dawn to coffee up and meet a friend who had also somehow neglected to tick this experience off her to-do list despite having lived here for years.

Local authorities had helpfully posted a map of the crossing route, only minutes outside Boise proper at the intersection of Highway 55 and Beacon Light Road. They included parking advice (don’t count on a space at the Chevron station unless you’re one of the first on the scene) and tips for sheep-peeping etiquette (stay out of the herd’s way and for heaven’s sake keep your dog on a leash).

Expecting a crowd, we parked at a nearby bike park and walked, joining a gradually growing contingent of others who looked both as curious and slightly befuddled as we felt. Have you done this before? folks asked one another, and Are we in the right spot? A few spectators we saw, presumably sheep-crossing veterans, had brought camp chairs.

Other than orange cones along the side of the road and a few official-looking vehicles strategically parked, Highway 55 looked like it does on any other Saturday morning, with cars, trucks, and campers whizzing toward the beckoning mountains around McCall and the scenic pleasures of the Payette River.

Except that a modest throng of people now lined the roadway, expecting sheep. At 9:00AM, with highway traffic now halted, a hush fell over Highway 55.

Anticipating sheep: photo by author

It was like waiting for an exceptionally fanfare-free parade.

At last, sheep!

Suddenly, with an eruption of baas and bleats, the wooly herd appeared from somewhere across Beacon Hill Road. A couple of shepherds (human) walked in front, briskly followed by the leading sheep, and the rest did what sheep are famed for.

They followed.

Lots of them.

Ewes and lambs mostly, from what I could tell, which is when it struck me how little I actually know about sheep and what it takes to raise them.

What I did recall in that moment is that sheep make a lot of noise. At least they do when they’re being firmly ushered along pavement, which must feel strange to their little cloven feet. They chorus in a general tone of complaint, like a lot of impatient tourists unhappy with the lines at the buffet.

Also they poop a lot.

I thought about trying to count them, but I was afraid I’d fall asleep.

On they trotted, guided by a surprisingly small human detail and a few dogs forming something like a canine caboose. They continued for approximately 300 yards along the highway until turning left into a culvert that led to a grass and weed-studded draw.

There they all stopped to eat, bunched up together like a fuzzy, cream-colored cloud.

Sheep on the march: photo by author

It took maybe ten minutes, and the whole show was over.

The spectators headed back to our cars, stepping carefully to avoid sheep droppings. My friend and I found a cafe in town where we celebrated with a mimosa brunch and then went shopping.

What is to be gleaned from watching sheep cross the road?

For one thing, it’s one of those quirky, life-affirming moments when people from the city and suburbs reschedule their Saturday morning to witness, well, sheep.

It’s also a link to Idaho’s sheepish history. Sadly and perhaps inevitably, sheep ranching is a diminishing presence in the state. It’s a tough way to make a living, requiring physical hardiness and endless vigilance — coyotes, wolves, black bears, and falling timber take their toll every year.

It requires skills not taught in U.S. trade schools: Frank Shirts, who runs a total of approximately 28,000 sheep from Wilder to the Payette National Forest high country every year, employs 25 sheep herders from Peru. Many of the shearing crews, who can expertly remove a fleece from an animal in one unbroken blanket, are from Uruguay.

And globalization hasn’t been the sheep rancher’s friend. In 2022, lamb prices were well below the cost of production and have only edged up since. Meanwhile, 70% of the lamb sold in America comes from Australia, which through a combination of market forces and a weaker Aussie dollar is able to flood U.S. grocery stores with their product.

Frank Shirts is 70. Another sheep ranching stalwart, Henry Etcheverry whose name bespeaks his French-Basque heritage, is 74. They both fear they may not have anything left to sell to fund their retirement.

So watching sheep being trailed through the margins of town and off into Idaho’s storied, rural past is not something to be taken for granted.

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