A herder works with Shaun Sims' sheep. Sims is one of many Wyoming sheep ranchers dependent on foreign herders who use H-2A visas. He worries the Department of Labor will change regulations on the visa program that allows him to hire foreign workers. (Courtesy Lacee Sims)

A proposed rule change from the Department of Labor could more than triple the wages ranchers are required to pay sheepherders, and opponents say put range ranchers out of business in Wyoming and across the West.

The Department of Labor released a draft of new rules for H-2A visa holders working in open range production.

Since the 1950s, sheepherders worked under special provisions set by the Department of Labor. These gave the herders a longer visa stay, allowed them to live in mobile housing and set a monthly wage for each state — $750, plus room and board in Wyoming.

The Department of Labor released a draft of new rules that within five years would raise the wages to $2,400 a month, plus room and board in Wyoming. Even with the proposed phase-in plans, ranchers can’t afford it, said Jim Magagna with the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association.

“The economics of the business are such that the operations simply could not survive that,” he said.

Magagna estimated more than half of Wyoming’s sheep industry would be impacted — the rest raise animals in pastures and don’t need herders.

The proposed changes come after four former sheepherders filed a lawsuit in 2011 saying the Department of Labor violated the Administrative Procedure Act and shouldn’t have adopted special procedures for herders without providing notice and a public comment period.

The case was dismissed in district court, but an appeals court reversed the decision and said the Department of Labor needed to follow the rule-making process for creating special procedures.

It did not require the rules change, but just that the department present them for public comment, said Kelli Griffith, executive director of the Mountains Plains Agriculture Service said in an email.

Herding is a unique job, said Evanston-based rancher Shaun Sims. The herders Sims hires are often from Peru and Chile and know how to handle horses, tend sheep and fight the loneliness of weeks of isolation.

Herders stay with the flock in case an animal becomes sick or injured. They thwart predator attacks. They regularly move the animals in an effort to keep the rangeland healthy and avoid overgrazing. On quiet days herders work only a few hours, while during lambing, or after a storm that scatters the sheep, the hours are long.

Last year the Western Range Association and Mountain Plains Agriculture Service, agencies that work with foreign workers and ranchers to fill jobs, had about 2,000 total herder jobs to fill, said Amy Hendrickson with the Wyoming Wool Growers Association. Only about three qualified Americans applied.

“For open range operations, the H-2A program is the only way to get workers,” she said. “It’s not that Americans aren’t able to do the job, they don’t want to do the job.”

Sheepherders move sheep on Shaun Sims’ ranch. Should the proposed new H-2A rules go into effect, traditional sheep grazing would “cease to exist — instantly,” Sims said. (Courtesy Lacee Sims)

Sims’ family has ranched near Evanston since 1865. Today, the Sims Sheep Company, which Sims operates with his father Mike Sims and his brother Steven Sims, is a large operation running 5,000 to 10,000 sheep and it’s reliant on its foreign workers.

“We’d like to continue it with our children and grandchildren,” Shaun Sims said.

Through the years they’ve dealt with predators and political issues and most recently worry about domestic sheep infecting big horn sheep with disease. Nothing he’s faced is as catastrophic as the change in rules could be to his ranch.

“It would cease to exist — instantly,” he said before the proposed rule came out April 15. “We can’t run an open range operation without herders. This stands a chance of absolutely causing ranches to go out of business, and not in a year or two, but right now.”

The repercussions would be felt nationwide, said Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association. It would impact wool mills and packing plants.

“It’s not just those family operations — while that’s significant in itself — we are talking over one-third of all the sheep produced in America would no longer be in production,” Orwick said.

The proposed changes also include some troubling definitions particularly when it comes to what constitutes range work, Orwick said.

“Lambing, shearing, shipping, weaning, those are the very acts of sheepherders, the full reason why you are grazing the sheep to begin with,” Orwick said.

Pat O’Toole’s family has ranched near Baggs since 1881. For more than 40 years the ranch relied on foreign herders. He uses about 12 herders on H-2A visas to trail his 6,000 sheep twice a year through 150 miles of desert, sagebrush and mountains.

“The thing about sheep is, you have to have people with them all the time because of the predators,” he said.

O’Toole and his ancestors endured storms, droughts, fluctuating markets, changing policies and predators, while keeping the ranch running. O’Toole thought he’d secured the most important thing for his ranch — its future. He has children and grandkids who love the business.

“But this is not survivable,” he said. “This would pretty much be the end of the range industry.”

He’s trying to think positively, even as he struggles to find an official who will speak to him by phone and answer questions on the more than 150-page document outlining the rule.

The public has until May 15 to comment on the proposed rule change, but Orwick hopes that time will be extended because of the length and complexity of the document. It also came at an especially hard time for ranchers who are calving, lambing and shearing, Orwick said. Once the public commenting period is finished, it usually takes 30 to 60 days before a final rule is published.

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. In response to Mr. Vanderhoff’s misguided comments.

    Modern sheep camps provide all of the common needs that modern camp trailers provide. If a camp trailer can be claimed on your taxes as a “second home” then why is it that a sheep camp is inadequite living conditions? Modern camps have surround sound stereos, tv’s, fridges, and ovens.

    The H-2A program was designed so ranchers could employ workers from other countries to run it’s daily operations because there are no able body Americans that want to do it. The jobs are there for Americans that are willng to work. The standard wage is a hefty living for ranch hands that live in Peru or Chile.

    In addition, ranch hands room annd board is paid in full. The money they are paid is theirs. Wages are not deducted.

    Jason Stamatakis
    Price, UT

  2. Much has been written about the Cattle Barons of early Wyoming and their dictatorial control of the land. The Sheep Barons haven’t gotten the publicity they truly deserve in recent decades , but their legacy then and now is terrible. Never mind they still think it is the 19th century and they should be allowed to operate as such , when Wyoming catered to several million wooly land maggots per season . overrunning the landscape like a Biblical plague. But the ugly truth is the Sheep Barons have always profited from the oppressive labor demanded their indigent herders. No amount of local color or character or the misplaced glamour of sheepherding can begin to assuage the lousy wages that have defined sheeping in Wyoming. It’s not about willing workers- it’s the endless disgrace of the Stockgrower that hires them.

    So the government wants to assure that sheepherders get a Living Wage and better working conditions. What a radical notion here in the 21st century. The contemporary Sheep Barons large and small whine they will not survive that, even after deducting the huge subsidies, tax favoritisms, and business leniency given to stockgrowers not accorded other industries. Taxpayers lose money on public lands grazing and public lands resource management by giving the stockmen such generous financial assistances, yet they still whine. Underlying all this is their stated belief that we of Wyoming not involved in sheep ranching still somehow owe them a living.

    Perhaps the entire economic model of sheep ranching is a failure…hard to profit from in good years, more likely to be unprofitable in most years were it not for those subsidies and such. If a herder and his dog cannot be employed, fed, housed, and supported for $1.00 per sheep head per month when factoring in all the subsidies and government support, the business is unsound to begin with.

    Wyoming and the federal government do not owe sheep producers a living. Sheeping needs to pay its own way like the rest of us.

    Dewey Vanderhoff
    Cody, Wyoming