Understanding sheep ranching on public lands at Shear and Shred

Brooke and I arrived at the Helle Sheep operation outside Dillon, Montana on a cool March morning. This was a big day for the Helle operation.  It marked the beginning of getting their wool to market – an event known as Shear and Shred. We sipped on hot coffee, caught up with our Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance (RVSA) friends, and introduced ourselves to new faces.  We were immediately struck by the sense of community around this big day for the Helles. 

Shearers sharving Helle’s Rambouillet sheep. The wool will be used in Duckworth clothing. (Photo GYC.)

Shearers sharving Helle’s Rambouillet sheep. The wool will be used in Duckworth clothing. (Photo GYC.)

The Helle Sheep operation has been on the southwest Montana landscape for generations. They make their living through a sustainable operation that takes care of the land and sheep. I’ve had the honor to work with John Helle through our involvement in the RVSA, which consists of rancher and nonprofits dedicated to long-term conservation on the Ruby Valley landscape. He has faced challenges with grizzly bear encounters and lawsuits threatening his access to the public grazing allotments. But these issues don’t get him down and I continue to be impressed with his upbeat attitude, drive to learn more, and be better in his business.

We soon filed into the barn and watched as the herdsmen pushed the sheep into a tight bunch. Several men stood eager on the platform, their tools and shears ready to go. The shearing done by these pros is an art. Each sheep is sheared in a way that gets a fleece off in one full piece. Brooke and I were impressed and intimidated when watching the shearers do their work one sheep after another, knowing that we were next to try the craft. They were agile and got a full fleece every time. The sheep seemed to surrender in their arms, and we were amazed by how gracefully they handled such strong animals. When our turn came, we hopped onto the station and with close direction attempted to shear. We did our best, but after a few passes across the sheep the shearer took over. As we stepped back, we grew an even larger appreciation for their trade.

Inspecting freshly sheared wool. (Photo GYC.)

Inspecting freshly sheared wool. (Photo GYC.)

After our time in the barn and corrals, we rode out with John to see all his sheep in the higher elevation winter pastures on his property, along with the loyal guard dogs that live with them through the harsh winter conditions. The drive was bumpy and definitely along the lines of adventurous for those of us who aren’t used to it.  Seeing the sheep out at pasture was a perfect way to cap off the day. The guard dogs greeted us from afar, as if they were bound to their herd and duty. We reflected on the tough work of the day and commitment that goes into this operation.

The next day, it was time for the shredding portion of Shear and Shred. We went skiing with John and several other of his friends and colleagues at Maverick Mountain. Everybody was a pro on the slopes! It was a beautiful bluebird day with friends and a reminder that all of us are so much more alike than we might have thought.

GYC’s Wildlife Program Associate Brooke Shifrin (left) and Montana Conservation Coordinator Darcie Warden shred the slopes at Maverick Mountain. (Photo GYC.)

GYC’s Wildlife Program Associate Brooke Shifrin (left) and Montana Conservation Coordinator Darcie Warden shred the slopes at Maverick Mountain. (Photo GYC.)

The visit was a great opportunity to see firsthand how ranchers need public land access to thrive. These operations use Forest Service grazing allotments with conservation in mind and a desire to preserve these wild, vast landscapes for years to come. A big thank you goes out to John Helle, his family, crew and business partners for sharing their work and skills with us, and for embracing our presence in the barn and on the slopes. We learned that creating a quality product from beginning to end is a huge investment, a lot of work, and an incredible way to build community. In Greater Yellowstone, it takes working with people to protect our incredible landscape.

— Darcie Warden, Montana Conservation Coordinator