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Walking with Sheep
John Faulkner and the flock,
entertaining tourists.

Story by Carolyn Dufurrena. Photos by Linda Dufurrena.

John Faulkner & flock © Linda Dufurrena
John Faulkner gets ready to move a band of 1,500 sheep across a narrow iron bridge. Recreationists now demand clean trails so the local recreation district brings a tractor and broom to sweep the path.

John Faulkner stands in the golden October morning, in a grassy meadow, a bench above the Wood River in Idaho. He is a tall, square-shouldered man with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard, wearing a Carhartt coat and a low-crowned silverbelly Stetson hat. Steam clouds rise from around his conversation with one of his herders, a small Peruvian holding a red roan horse in the early light. The river gurgles over smooth stones below the bench, winding its way down through aspens, between steep brown hillsides dotted with patches of fir and lodgepole pine. Further up the valley, the peaks are already white. Faulkner is getting ready to cross a band of 1,500 sheep over a narrow iron bridge.

There are several other herders coming up the path from the river, getting ready to help. They carry big yellow palm fronds, like something you’d see on the way into Jerusalem, to wave at sheep that might not cooperate. There are some other people too, who don’t really look like sheepherders, but are coming along anyway, interested in the proceedings.

Just beyond the band of sheep, behind Faulkner and his herders, stretches the lower valley. Things have changed here in the 60 years of the Faulkner sheep business.

The valley used to be all farms and ranches. Trains went out every day in summer with 40 to 60 carloads of lambs, for this valley and the surrounding area shipped more sheep and wool to market than anywhere but Sydney, Australia.

Then, in 1936, the Sun Valley ski resort was founded just a few miles above this crossing. “In fact,” Faulkner recalls, “the Ketchum Livestock Association owned 800 acres in Sun Valley, and the entryway to Sun Valley Lodge was mistakenly built on Livestock Association land. We sold it to ’em for a dollar.” Piece by piece, the rest of the deeded land was to follow, and now there is no more Ketchum Livestock Association. Today, the backdrop to the trail is not just aspens and craggy canyons, but the ski lodges, million-dollar vacation homes, trendy restaurants and ski shops that are the seasonal haunts of getaway glitterati, who fly in to the Hailey Airport in private jets with their staff and their nannies. Remote controls inside cockpits turn on the heating systems in their mountain getaways as they are on final approach.

We have passed by many of these lovely homes on our way to this bench above the river. There is a cluster in the immediate background behind this band of sheep. Many of them are empty: it’s not ski season yet.

The other people who have come up the path behind the herders are tourists, here for the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, of which this band of Faulkner’s sheep is the main attraction. People with whom I speak have planned this trip for months. They’ve driven a long way to help walk the sheep through Ketchum. After they cross this bridge, the sheep will proceed, hopefully at a walk, down main street, along the bike path, through Hailey, and into pastures below town. Many of these people are here to help herd, weekenders from Wisconsin and Wales, Georgia, and New York. They are just out for a jaunt, curious, interested. Faulkner welcomes them. “They seem to like seeing the sheep,” he says. We are none of us that many generations removed from the farms of our ancestors.

All around the West, development, recreation and agriculture find themselves operating in the same spaces, sometimes pretty uncomfortably. More people, more wealth, means more recreation; more recreation has meant more grazing land under restriction from the creation of national monuments and recreation areas. Development has moved ranchers inch-by-inch out of the valleys where their fathers made a place for themselves.

Locals worry about the “Aspenization” of this valley. One example is the trail easement, a 50- to 100-foot right-of-way next to the railroad right-of-way used by sheepmen throughout the history of the valley. It’s now been paved through Ketchum, and is used as a bike and hiking path. Faulkner has tried to accommodate locals peeved by sheep droppings on the bike path.

“The Recreation District brings a tractor now with a broom on it to sweep the path,” he tells me. “It follows the sheep down the bike path, so people don’t get anything stuck in their rollerblades or up their backs. I tell ’em, fenders on your mountain bike would do the same thing, but they don’t think that’s too funny.”

Faulkner’s family and their sheep have trailed down this valley since the Depression. His father Ralph started with a band of 25 sheep, which he bought for a dollar apiece down in Gooding, below where this valley widens into the broad Camas Prairie, where these sheep are headed. The Faulkner home place is down there, with 2,800 acres planted to sugar beets, corn, and grain; feeder lambs spend eight weeks on pasture there before being trucked to Greeley, Colo. for the winter. Ewes lamb on alfalfa pasture in Blythe, Calif., and return to Idaho in the spring. “We graze BLM land in March, then move onto some private land in April and May. By June we’re up on the national forest.” In October, they make the journey back through this valley, to be sheared in preparation for the trip to California. You can tell he loves the sheep business by the way he talks.

“My father started a community band, ran other farmers’ sheep in Gooding. In 1935 he got 500 AUMs [animal unit months] from the BLM, and started to build from there.” Ralph gradually bought out the farmers. He was running four bands by the time his eldest son John got out of the Army after graduating from the University of Idaho. He had 12 bands by the time his three sons were grown. Jim followed John to school in Moscow, and also joined the Army. Fred stayed home on the ranch after army life. Jim split off from the sheep operation in 1983 and now raises Simmental cattle and horses near Bliss, Idaho. (“We were getting along great, and that’s the best time to split up.”) Fred and John split the business again in 1992. “We still have breakfast together about every day,” Faulkner says. He now runs the business, 10 bands of Columbia-Rambouillet ewes and Suffolk rams, numbering some 11,500 head, with his wife of 45 years, Jody, sons Mike, 42, Mark, 40, and Jack, 31.

Faulkner has taken me on a drive to point out some of the other bands that are in the valley. I ask him about working with the federal government. “We have a pretty good relationship with the Forest Service,” he says. Last summer they worked out details together for putting in several more campgrounds. He realizes the importance of taking care of the land. “In the Sawtooth, there’s a lot of granitic soil. You don’t want to abuse it, graze it down.” Not even to reduce the risk of fire? “We don’t have a lot of fires on the north end up there.” He tells me that the nickname for the Sawtooth is “the asbestos forest. The moisture up there is good, the ground’s higher” than on the south end, across the Snake River.

He’s encouraged about the sheep business; relieved with the results of the election. “I think we’ll see more professionalism in the Forest Service leadership,” he says. “The people here have been so bogged down in paperwork” for the last years but they’re feeling better about the way things will go.

What does he want for his kids? “The boys and their families want to keep going in the sheep business. I think we can get along with the Forest Service and with recreation interests. In 1950 we were lucky to make a hundred pound lamb. This year the lambs averaged 136 pounds, and there’s more forage left behind on the mountain. The gauge of it is the quality of the lambs. The forest is a renewable resource, and it’s better than 40 years ago.”

That sounds like a recipe for the future.

Carolyn Dufurrena is a geologist, teacher, rancher and writer from Denio, Nev. Her mother-in-law, acclaimed photographer Linda Dufurrena, lives on a sheep and cattle ranch close by.

Editor's Note: Trailing of the Sheep 2001 will be held October 12-14. For information contact the Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce at 800-634-3347.

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last page update: 04.03.05