Pet Travel Tuesday
Book: Shepherds of Coyote Rocks: Public Lands, Private Herds, and the Natural World (2012)
By Pamela Douglas Webster
Set in the American West while connected by spiritual kinship to sheep herders of the world, Cat Urbigkit’s Shepherds of Coyote Rocks serves as a sort of pastoral travelogue.
The tale of Urbigkit’s season on the Wyoming range tending sheep tells of the natural beauty of her surroundings, government land policy, the interrelationship of life and death, herding traditions throughout the world, and the animals with whom she shares her life. It’s an ambitious undertaking. But one that succeeds with its engaging storytelling and illustrative photographs that fill the book.
The book begins in western Wyoming’s Big Sandy region where Urbigkit’s flock will deliver their lambs and graze until autumn.
Surrounded by National Forests and grazed under permit, the region’s year-round residents include bear, wolves, coyote, mountain lions, golden eagles, pronghorn antelope, and many other predators and prey.
Coyotes are small in size but a constant threat to newborn lambs. Ravens have been known to peck at the eyes of lambs and can even injure full grown ewes. And a pack of wolves can do tremendous damage to a flock and its guardians.
One realizes quickly that sheep could not graze safely on the range without the ever watchful eyes of brave protectors. And this challenging reality sets Urbigkit’s guard dogs at the core of her story.
The writer is helped in her flock tending by Abe, the herding dog, and three protective dogs, Rena, Rant, and Luv’s Girl. Two other protective animals are the burros, Bill and Hillary.
Bred for their working abilities, Urbigkit’s dogs come from a rich line of guard dogs. Rant, in particular, is descended from dogs that help Afghan shepherds tend their flocks. The dogs must be gentle enough to nurture their woolly charges while strong enough to chase or even kill coyotes or wolves threatening the flock.
From shortly after birth, the dogs are raised with the sheep they are meant to protect. It doesn’t take long for the dogs to resist being separated from the lambs, or for their ovine step siblings to protest the dogs’ absence.
Brave and fierce as they are when protecting their flock, the dogs will patiently endure any indignity from the lambs they are watching. Urbigkit describes the patience with which Rant waits to be relieved by her when orphaned lambs are searching his belly for a teat to provide nourishing milk.
Urbugkit described the relationship simply:
We have working partnerships with our animals–they aren’t simply pets, here to enhance our lives, although they do that as well. We live with and depend on one another, in various ways…. Livestock guardian dogs by their very nature are independent animals, so they get a vote. More often than not, the dogs decide. I try to influence their decisions, but I know I’m working with an animal that has survived for thousands of years by making its own way.
And it’s Urbigkit’s awareness of her place in world history that fascinates me.
She reflects constantly on the similarities of her animal tending with herdsmen in Mongolia, North Africa, Afghanistan, and rural Europe. The seasonal migration of people with their herds is a practice called transhumance. It is seen in all corners of the world. In some places, migrational grazing is under great threat. In others, however, governments are realizing the importance of pastoralism in promoting biodiversity and protecting the land.
People and their animals have migrated through the region now known as the American West for more than 10,000 years.
Urbigkit argues passionately that a healthy range needs predators and prey, domestic animals and wild ones, and that people who love and understand the land are key to its protection. From the shepherd grazing her flock to the tourist buying locally-produced wool on her Yellowstone vacation, everyone has a role to play.
Photo Credits: Big Sandy Creek is by Mia & Steve Mestdagh on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons license. Lamb is by Cat Urbigkit and is used with permission of the publisher.