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Photographed in the Bear River Valley, Utah.
Peruvians Herd but Not Seen
By David Kelly
October 22, 2004
Article in Los Angeles Times:
Alejandro Sarete is up before dawn, slipping into the windswept darkness looking for wolves or coyotes prowling among his flock.
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With the herd accounted for, he has breakfast in his tiny home
-- a metal camper too small to stand up in with a rattling washbasin and haunch of raw lamb hanging from its side. An old stove provides heat, a lantern gives light, and a lone portrait of Peruvian singer Anita Santivanez offers the only decor.
Today Sarete will help bring thousands of sheep out of the high desert, branding and penning them up here near the town of Kemmerer in southwest Wyoming. Then the father of three, who left his children in Peru, will take another herd into the state's vast interior. It's a timeless task, a steady rotation of sheep that marks his days and structures his life.
For the last decade, ranchers across the West have come to rely almost entirely on Peruvians like Sarete to tend their sheep. The rugged South Americans have a rich herding tradition, are used to harsh weather and, more important, are willing to work for low wages in one of the nation's least known but most demanding occupations.
"In Peru, I might make $5 a day if I'm lucky," said Sarete, 38, a stoic man with a smooth face and stocky build. "I have used the money I make here to buy a tractor and a bull back home
Sheepherders arrive on three-year visas with wages set by each state. In Wyoming, the pay is $650 a month plus food, airfare, clothes and lodging. They labor 365 days a year and are on call around the clock. Living in tents or campers, they often spend weeks alone with their grazing animals. There are no televisions or telephones, and radio reception is sketchy.
Western Range Assn., the biggest provider of foreign workers for American sheep ranchers, says 82% of its 800 herders are Peruvian, 12% are Chilean and the rest are mostly Mexican.
"We tried Mongolians, but it didn't work out. There was too much of a language barrier," said Dennis Richins, executive director of Salt Lake City-based Western Range. "Then we started bringing in Peruvians. They were used to being in the mountains and used to being around sheep."
Before the Peruvians, Basques from Spain along with Mexicans made up the majority of herders. American sheepherders, common until the 1950s, are rare.
"I think the last American I had was here for about two weeks," said Truman Julian, a fifth-generation rancher who has 10,000 sheep, one of the largest herds in Wyoming. "He thought it would be glamorous, like being a cowboy, but he soon realized it wasn't."
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Sheep need careful tending because they are on the menus of so many predators, including bears, coyotes, mountain lions and wolves.
"Cows you can let out and forget about," Julian said.
As he spoke, the thump of hoof beats rose in the distance. Moments later, chaos erupted. More than 2,000 sheep charged down the parched hills, circled by barking border collies. Peruvians on horseback galloped in behind them. Herders whooped loudly, frightening and funneling the wooly mob through a narrow gate.
"These guys are the toughest of the tough," said Julian, who employs the men. "Their whole lives are dedicated to these sheep. If they left, we'd be finished."
Herders are America's solitary nomads, following their sheep and constantly looking for greener pastures. They come together at certain times of the year when flocks are sheared, branded, medically checked or shipped for slaughter. On such occasions, their tents and campers form tiny hamlets where the men pass the nights talking of home
and listening to Peruvian music
In Pomeroy Basin, a swath of sage and dun-colored hills, the animals have come to be branded and have their teeth checked for wear. Sarete and six other herders pr