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Sheep and cattle in Pagosa Country

Everyone who watches western movies knows that cattlemen and sheepmen didn’t get along.

That was certainly true of Pagosa Country history. A descendant of one of the early cattle families once told me, pointing at the line of cliffs in the mountains on the east and north sides of Pagosa Springs said, “See those cliffs over there? They’re all at an elevation of about eight to ten-thousand feet. It was understood by the cattlemen and sheepmen that during the summer, sheep would be grazed above the cliffs and cattle below.”

I heard a lot of stories about the early days from both sides. Most of them were impossible to verify. When the Forest Service was created shortly after 1900, they did a lot to ease the tension between the two camps. For one thing, most of the land at higher elevations was claimed by the Forest Service. Consequently, the sheep ranchers grazing at those higher elevations had to buy grazing permits from the Forest Service. It was a Forest Service responsibility not only to issue the permits, but to make sure land on the permits wasn’t being overgrazed and that permittees didn’t trespass on land they hadn’t paid to graze.

The Forest Service also maintained the trails used to get the sheep up into the mountains to the grazing permits. In fact, the trails were in use long before the Forest Service was created. They were mostly the result of driving large herds of sheep — often numbering in the thousands — up old wild game trails.

When the Forest Service took over, they improved the trails and placed markers on trees down the center and at each edge of the trails. A lot of those markers were still in existence when I arrived in Pagosa Country and started backpacking along those trails in the early 1970s. Some of the trails were marked with blazes on trees.

The Forest Service also maintained counting stations with corrals, chutes and dipping vats at the beginnings of the respective trails. The sheep were counted to control overgrazing. The remains of some of those counting stations still remain.

The same old rancher I quoted earlier told me the cattlemen tolerated the sheep herds as long as the herders kept the sheep on the trails and kept them moving.

During those early days, most of the sheep were wintered in northern New Mexico in places like Gobernador Cañon. After spring birthing and shearing, they’d be driven to the high country. The herder stayed with them all summer, then brought them back down before the deep snows of winter arrived. Someone from the home ranch was designated to periodically resupply grub for the herders who stayed in the mountains all summer.

I’ve been told more money was made from sheep than from cattle. Literally tens of thousands of sheep grazed the high country during the summer. Sheep growers earned money from selling the wool and also from selling off the new lamb crop in the fall — a double entrée.

Sheep ranchers typically owned large herds, but did not take the animals to the mountains themselves. Instead, they’d get someone to agree to take a herd, maybe a thousand sheep, to and from the mountains. They’d pay their herders by letting them keep a percentage of the new crop of lambs. The owner was not out any money and the herders had a chance to build up herds of their own.

Next week in this column, we’ll talk about the Archuleta County Sheepmen’s/Cattlemen’s War.

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