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Who Really Needs Sheep Ranching?  *   Check Out The Ewe Revue!  *  1,000 Penguins Can't Be Wrong!
Sheep Trailing in the High Country
by Geri Lasater

Geri Lasater is a 25-year resident of Bayfield, a teacher in the Bayfield schools, and one of the organizers of the Sheep Trailing and Heritage Days Festival. She is married to a sheep rancher.

       The full moon reveals a sheep wagon in a clearing among the pines, smoke rising from its chimney. Smells of cedar and coffee waft from the wood stove inside. About 2,000 ewes and lambs are quietly bedded nearby. Three days ago, Casey Brown and four herders left his home in Ignacio, CO, 28 miles away. They trailed, or walked, the sheep up the highway sleeping in the sheep camp along the way, and arrived at Transfer Park last night. Today they will go into the forest where they will spend the summer, eventually reaching elevations over 13,000 ft.

       After coffee and biscuits, Casey readies the panniers. He packs salt, staples, the bedrolls, and checks the breakaway knots to the four mules. Once again, his ritual of packing supplies into the herder begins, a 2-day task that will be done once every week for the months of July, August, and September. Every week the camp and sheep are moved to rotate the grazing areas.

       The yellow dawn comes and almost as if cued by a conductor, the sheep rise from the bedding grounds like a wave of wool and move toward the forest. Except for the jingle of a few bells, campers sleep undisturbed in a campground nearby, unaware of the passing herd. Both sheep and herders disappear into the aspen and pine trees. "Learn to trust the sheep," Casey says, "they know where they are going." After fifty years in the business, he should know. Riding his mare, he leads the pack string and disappears too.

       Casey's family is one of only three sheep ranching families left who carry on this trailing tradition. In the 1800's, sheep and cattle were trailed up into the forests above Bayfield, Colorado, for summer pasture. Native Americans, homesteaders, and immigrant herders moved their animals from southern Colorado and northern New Mexico into the high mountains for the summer. In the fall when the animals came down, the herders often did not know when they had reached New Mexico because there were no fences. Just as was done over a hundred years ago, Casey will trail his sheep home to Ignacio at the end of September when the lambs are sold, then trail the ewes down into New Mexico for the winter.

       He laments the demise of small farm families and the decline in sheep numbers, especially because sheep are so beneficial for the environment. He often invites people to ride his range and see for themselves the benefits of sheep grazing. Once a college professor with a Master's Degree in Animal Science, he explains that sheep foraging helps to create and maintain biological diversity, to control noxious weeds, and to provide a low-tech "fire fighting" tool because sheep eat undergrowth that provides fuel for fires. Sheep grazing can also be used to manage vegetation, reduce soil erosion, and because the rotation direction is alternated each summer, the grasses remain vigorous since they are eaten at a different time each season. Furthermore, because his sheep enjoy a wide variety of plants in their diet, he maintains that lambs raised in Rocky Mountains are the best tasting anywhere.

       Believing that this trailing tradition is a unique attraction, the community of Bayfield created the Sheep Trailing and Heritage Days Festival last year to honor its farming and ranching heritage. Spectators are invited to come and watch the actual trailing home to fall pasture as the sheep parade through the main street of town. After the trailing, there will be spinning and weaving, fiber arts, shearing, music, rodeo events, children's games, cultural dancing, sheep dog trials, food and much more for the whole family in the park. The trailing and festival will be Saturday, September 29, 2001. On Friday night, September 28th, the public is invited to the high school to hear local old timers tell stories about the good old days. Last year's festival was a huge success, and organizers are preparing for another great event this fall.

For further information contact or

Who Really Needs Sheep Ranching?

       Open space, wildlife and the associated habitat, and a myriad of sheep industry by-products are used by the general population, yet many television spots influencing public opinion broadcast a skewed view of the value of western sheep ranching with blatantly manipulative titles such as "The Fleecing of America". Public perception of western sheep operations is often a vague combination of old range war movies and "feature stories" on the nightly news, resulting in negative stereotypes. But how much wildlife habitat is provided by the average suburbanite with a big screen television and the requisite SUV in the family garage? A bird feeder is a noble gesture, but its backyard presence is not a significant contribution in answer to this question. The average home site has already successfully destroyed the native habitat and displaced its wildlife permanently.

       Bonnie Kline, Executive Director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association, has many good answers to the question "who really needs sheep ranching" in a state which has seen dramatic population growth over the past 10-15 years:

  • Sheep foraging habits help create and maintain biological diversity. For example, early summer sheep grazing can provide deer with higher protein vegetation during critical winter months. Consequently, the deer sharing the sheep grazing habitat can have heavier than average body weights, be in better physical condition, and breed earlier than deer feeding in ungrazed areas.

  • The US Forest Service uses "fire fighting" sheep as a low-tech, low-cost approach to undergrowth control on national forests. This approach benefits the forest environment by eliminating the need for herbicides; it benefits the Forest Service by reducing the need for costly manual clearing; and benefits adjacent communities that are at risk from wildfires.

  • Sheep grazing can be an effective biological control program to increase conifer growth, and is far less costly than chemical or mechanical means of vegetation control. In the United States and Canada, sheep grazing has helped regenerate ponderosa pine, douglas fir, radiata pine, sugar pine, and western hemlock forests.

  • Noxious weeds are a substantial threat to private, BLM and Forest Service land; they displace native plant species and destroy wildlife habitat. Sheep are unique in that they readily consume plants that other animals avoid or find toxic. As a result, sheep are used to control many noxious weeds. Sheep grazing can successfully control leafy spurge, spotted knapweed, fringed sagewort, kudzu, oxeye daisy, and tall larkspur.

  • In shrub-dominated watersheds and riparian areas, sheep grazing can be used to manage vegetation and to reduce soil erosion. By clearing brush, sheep grazing at low to moderate intensity promotes growth of perennial grasses that enhance watersheds.

  • Wool is wonderful by-product of sheep production. The history of wool begins about 10,000 years ago with our ancestors living in the Mesopotamian plain and using sheep for three basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter. The warmth of wool clothing and the mobility of sheep allowed mankind to spread civilization far beyond the warm climate of the Mesopotamia.

  • Throughout time, pioneers to outdoor enthusiasts have long recognized the value of wool. Wool garments are excellent protection against hypothermia. Wool is a hygroscopic fiber which allows it to absorb moisture and perspiration. Thus, a wool garment will keep a layer of dry air next to the skin, which in turn helps hold in body heat. As wool absorbs atmospheric moisture, the hydrogen bond of water is broken and chemically reacts with molecules in the wool to generate heat.

  • Sheep by-products are used in the manufacturing of many consumer items that are enjoyed by, and contribute to the health and convenience of people from all walks of life. Instead of receiving these by-products from a renewable, natural resource, would you or the environment be better off if these products had to be derived from a chemical manufacturing process? Sheep producers are proud to provide consumers with high quality food, fiber, and a myriad of other products by utilizing renewable natural resources.

The flock of sheep is sold:
Check them out at the Ewe Revue!

       More than 40 sheep have been sold for the Ewe Revue, a Rochester, Michigan, community-wide public arts event. The only catch: these aren't live sheep. Each life-sized sheep is made of fiberglass and designed by a local artist to celebrate the history, pride and spirit of downtown Rochester, a northern Detroit suburb. The Ewe Revue will kick off June 9th, 2001, with a BAA-B-Q in downtown Rochester from 12-8 p.m. Eat delicious food, stroll through historic downtown, dance to live music and admire the sheep, which will be displayed throughout the downtown area.

        The Ewe Revue is a project of the Rochester Downtown Development Authority, in conjunction with Rochester Downtown Promotions & Marketing Partnership. The sheep are sponsored by local and national business owners and will be on display until September 2001. For more information, please call (248)656-0060 or visit
Courtesy of American Sheep Industry Assn

Wear Wool
1,000 Penguins Can't Be Wrong!

       The penguins down under are looking sharp these days in their new wool jerseys. Some 1,000 of Australia's fairy penguins are sporting 15-inch jerseys that cover them from neck to ankle, preventing them from preening and ingesting poisonous oil from recent oil spills off the coast of the Australian island state of Tasmania. Following the spills, the Tasmanian Conservation Trust requested that the penguins receive the wool jerseys, which are made from scraps of wool. "They (the jerseys) have come from everywhere, even as far away as Japan. Someone in New York asked for a pattern but we haven't received it yet," Jo Castle, a spokeswoman for the Trust said. The patterns are made by knitters, many of whom are elderly ladies in nursing homes, who design the jerseys to reflect their favorite football team. Some knitters also have matched the penguin's natural colors by knitting woolly tuxedos.
Courtesy of American Sheep Industry Assn

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Routt County Woolens, LLC is introducing the 2001 Limited Edition Herder's Heritage Blanket, inspired by sheep camps found throughout Northwest Colorado's rich summer sheep range.

Dio Choperena, the AT&T Wireless Shepherd
Long time California sheep producer/shepherd gains fame as "AT&T Shepherd"

       Ever since AT&T Wireless Services launched its million dollar plus advertising campaign last spring featuring a shepherd and his sheep, ASI has received questions and calls from producers wondering, among other things, if the ads were filmed in the United States and who was the actor playing the shepherd. Well, the wireless-using shepherd is no actor, at least not by trade. He is none other than former shepherd and California sheep producer Dio Choperena, whose operation is in northern California's Tomales Bay area.

       As the story goes, Dio was "discovered" last Easter Sunday by an AT&T talent scout when the scout stopped in a general store in the town of Tomales and asked if there were any sheep producers in the area. A shopper in the store, who was acquainted with Dio, overheard the conversation and referred the scout to Dio, who just happened that day to be celebrating the holiday in a local pub down the street from store. The scout met Dio, did a film test and knew immediately he had found the perfect shepherd for the multi-million dollar advertising campaign. Choperena and his wife, Monica, attended ASI's 2001 convention in Reno, where they were a hit with convention attendees, some of whom had their photo taken with Choperena and others getting his autograph on napkins or on the back of convention name badges.

Basque Roots

       Choperena's sheep roots go back to his childhood in Spain's Basque country, where he was one of 10 children on a family sheep operation. He says from a very young age he had dreams of being a shepherd. He realized that dream in 1973 when at age 17 he accepted a job as a shepherd on a Wyoming ranch even though he had never visited the United States. Choperena, who spoke no English at the time, said the move was difficult even though he did come to the United States with a fellow Spaniard who also worked on the same Wyoming ranch as a shepherd.

       "The first year was scary. I was lonesome. I missed my family and friends," Choperena said. But things got better, and Choperena spent six years on the Wyoming operation. During that time, one of his brothers moved to California to also work on a sheep ranching operation. One year, his brother broke his leg, and Choperena traveled to California to help the operation's owner, George Nicholas, who was working at the time to develop the Polypay breed. Nicholas liked Choperena's work, and following Choperena's return to Wyoming, kept calling him to come work for him in Califonia.

       Choperena finally consented and left Wyoming for California, following which he worked for Nicholas for 16 years, helping him on his sheep operation, including helping Nicholas develop the Polypay breed. Following the deaths of Nicholas and his wife some nine years ago, Choperena acquired some of Nicholas' sheep. "His (Nicholas') son and I always got along well and worked out an agreement for me to obtain some of the sheep," Choperena said. Choperena, whose sheep herd once totaled 2,000, now raises 700 head of Polypay sheep in northern California.

New Found Fame

       As for his new side gig as a commercial actor, Choperena seems unaffected by the fame and could not have been more personable and charming in his discussions with sheep producers and others in attendance at ASI's convention. In fact, he showed a bit of his shy side when he was formally introduced to convention attendees. However, he also showed his sense of humor when making a few remarks at the ASI RAMS PAC reception, and had everyone chuckling as he explained how he became involved in the AT&T advertising campaign.

       To date, Choperena said he has been involved in the production of 12 AT&T Wireless commercials and advertisements, produced mostly in California settings. He said the experience has been interesting, although he did admit to being a "little nervous" when the first commercial was filmed.

       For those unfamiliar with the advertising campaign, which includes television, print and radio, the television commercials feature a shepherd taking his sheep into settings where you wouldn't normally find sheep, or any other animals, including a restaurant, a grocery store and a taxi cab. Choperena said the other actors in the commercials are sometimes afraid of the sheep, which Choperena refers to as "Hollywood" sheep. "The sheep are a Columbia/Rambouillet cross breed, and they basically are working sheep, as they go from commercial to commercial or appear in movies," he said. The sheep have been known to munch on parts of the production sets, such as the contents of one of the dining actor's plate in the restaurant commercial and food items on the shelves in the grocery store commercial.

       For those who enjoy the popular commercials, you can look forward to seeing more of Choperena in the AT&T Wireless ads, as he has signed a two-year contract. Does he ever get recognized from his work in the commercials? "Sometimes I get recognized," he said. "During the ASI convention, I was walking through the casino when a man walked up to me and said, ‘did anyone ever tell you that you look like the shepherd in the AT&T ads?'"
Courtesy of
American Sheep Industry Assn

Read more about Dio Choperena and see him with his "Hollywood sheep" in Not a Baahed Gig, Marin man answers ATT's call for shepherd, by Kelly St. John, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer.