An ivory-colored wave advances over a grassy hill. The sound of 950 sheep bleating fills this otherwise desolate landscape as ewes and their lambs, separated during their journey by truck from Los Banos to the former Fort Ord, try to find one another by smell and sound.
The band is part of a 2,500-head herd that annually descends on Bureau of Land Management grassland, where their efficient munching helps reduce wildfire risk and encourage native plant regeneration.
“Our hired hooves go out to keep the fuel load down for fire protection,” says Eric Morgan, BLM’s Fort Ord manager.
The sheep don’t cost the BLM anything, he adds; it’s more of a trade. Yriarte Sheep Company gets free rangeland, and the BLM gets free weed control.
The sheep keep down non-native grasses like wild oats and ripgut brome on 2,500 acres, BLM botanist Bruce Delgado explains. Signs of their success: the spread of native plants like bunchgrass and footsteps-of-spring.
After the last of the sheep bound off the trucks Feb. 29, company owner Pete Yriarte and his buddy, a Vietnam vet who trained at Fort Ord, joke with Delgado about the ewes’ plumpness.
“Keep the big ones; we’ll have some lamb chops with Pinot,” the vet says.
“You’ll have to pay me,” Yriarte counters with a laugh.
The lambs are, after all, his product; they’ll head off to slaughter next month. The ewes, kept as breeders, will stay until mid-June, then return next year with their new lambs.
Accompanying the sheep are shepherds Julian and Felipe Quinto, brothers from Huancayo, Peru, who sleep in an Airstream trailer while moving the sheep across the range.
Julian’s annual visits to Fort Ord date back to 1996. He was severely injured in 2006, when a motorist swerved to avoid sheep crossing the road and hit Julian, who was leading the pack. This is his first year back since the accident.
Helping the shepherds are three border collies and a Pyrenees guard dog, Chango, who circles the sheep at night to protect them from predators. Still, a few are inevitably killed. Last year, 12 were taken by coyotes and three by domestic dogs, Delgado says. (The BLM asks visitors to leash their pets near the herds.)
Local filmmaker Enid Baxter Blader, whose planetord.com looks at the history and ecology of Fort Ord, filmed the first band of sheep arriving Feb. 26.
“The sight of that many sheep coming off the truck is sublime and a little overwhelming,” she says. She was particularly impressed by the fluid interactions between the Quinto brothers, their dogs and the herd: “They’re this big organism working together.”
The sheep started grazing Fort Ord in 1995. This year, BLM officials are planning a family-friendly “sheep appreciation day” (date TBA), when the public can watch shearing demonstrations and learn more about the grazing program.