This weekend, the Sun Valley area celebrated an industry that was around even before skiing. The Trailing of the Sheep festival tells the history of the sheepherding industry in the valley that is still very much alive today.
Each October, a band of sheep makes its way down Ketchum’s Main Street past visitors from all over the world. After spending the summer in the mountains, the herders bring the sheep down to lower grazing grounds for the winter.
Sheepherding has been prominent in the West since the mid-1800s. But this festival wasn’t created until 1996, when a new bike path brought riders in contact with the migrating sheep.
“Suddenly all the recreational people were a little surprised at the sheep droppings because the sheep had also come through the same easement up and down the highway," said Diane Peavey, a founder of the festival along with her husband former state senator John Peavey. Together, they own Flat Top Ranch in Carey, one of the handful of ranches that herd sheep in the area.
"They started calling us," said Peavey, "and they were not happy; they were a little angry.”
The year of the bike path frustration was also an election year and John was running again for his position in the Idaho Senate. He needed his constituents’ support, and that meant showing people what sheep herding is all about. The first year, the Peavey's just invited people out to see the migration happen before their eyes.
“It was cold in the morning and dark, and we had a coffee and a roll or something at the Western," said John Peavey. "[We] loaded up when daylight started to break, went out and found a band and people helped us moved them down the valley.”
Diane said the next year attendance doubled.
"It kept building and building. And we were getting calls from parents — can they bring their kids out after school? — we were getting calls from teachers — could they bring their classes out to walk behind the sheep?"
Since then, the festival has grown to include a crafts fair, several cooking and food events, and sheep dog trials. The sheepherding industry continues to change, too.
The Scottish and the Basques are often credited with making sheepherding in Idaho what is today. But now, most herders who stay in the white wagons tending to the sheep are Peruvian.
As the economy was getting better in Spain a couple decades ago, and most Basques in Idaho were moving on from rural jobs to places like Boise, there was a growing need for workers to fill the herding roles.
The Peruvian sheepherders are on three-year H-2A visas, which are unique to the industry. After three years in the U.S., they must go back to Peru for 90 days. Then, they can apply to come again.
Last Friday before the parade, two herders, Doroteo and Elvis, were out by Lake Creek north of Sun Valley with the sheep about to make their Main Street run.
Doroteo has been working for Faulkner Ranch & Livestock for nine years.
Elvis is twenty-seven years old and on his first contract. He says the job is somewhat similar to what his family did in Peru. They didn't herd sheep, but they had cattle. Two of his uncles have also worked in Idaho as sheepherders.
Doroteo says spending the summer with the herd in the mountains is his favorite part of the year-round job.
"We see trees, birds, coyotes, elk. Watching them is fun for me. Summer is my favorite," he said in Spanish.
After bringing the sheep through Ketchum and down to the ranch, Doroteo and Evlis will help with sheering and lambing until it’s back to the mountains next spring.
Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen
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