June 2011 Update
POV: When did you know there would be a “last” sheep drive, which we ultimately saw in Sweetgrass in 2003?
Elaine Allestad: Probably a year before. The last year we went we lost 60 verified head of sheep to mainly grizzly bears that last year, and we came up short probably around 100 head. The Defenders of Wildlife had a program that would reimburse us for verified losses, and they only paid us for 15-16 head, because they said we should have left if we’d had that many lost. We couldn’t take those kinds of losses. They negotiated paying us to give up our (public grazing) permit. We went and looked at one other grazing permit — it was a national forest, but not in the wilderness — and that was too busy a place. There were motorcycles, trails… It just wouldn’t work. And then we looked at leasing private land, and that didn’t work out. They finally figured they’d just give us cash and we’d go figure out something else.
POV: What happened to the Allestad ranch?
Elaine: Our home ranch, our whole operation changed when we didn’t go to the mountains. We had a couple thousand sheep, so we had to drastically change, because we didn’t have enough grass for summering that many head. Our neighbor, who was a banker from New York, bought a place that neighbored us in Sweet Grass (County, Montana) and was interested in buying our place. We went shopping to find a replacement for it, and we found a ranch in the northern part of Montana. We actually seven-timesed our acres and 10-timesed our grass, so we’re still ranching! And then we have a place on Yellowstone (Montana) that we’ve leased for 42 years, and we still have that place. Our son is on our ranch up north, and we’re on the place at Big Timber.
POV: What happened to the sheep?
Elaine: The lambs went to market and our ewes we decided to try a venture of putting them out on shares, but that didn’t work out so well. We ended up getting most of them back, not all of them. A young couple wanted to get into the sheep business, so they bought most of our sheep and they’re in the sheep business now. We have about 200 left on our place on Yellowstone.
POV: Can you tell us what John Ahern and Pat Connolly are up to, the two sheep herders we spent the most time with in ‘Sweetgrass’?
Elaine: Our herders, most of the time, were temporary, summer employees.
John is still at Roundup, Montana and he still does a little shearing sheep, a little carpentry — a little bit of everything. He went back to where he lived.
Pat is working on a ranch up at Two Dot, Montana.
POV: Do you think there’s a future for sheep herding or for a sheep industry in America?
Elaine: There used to be millions of sheep in Montana and now there’s only 200,000. I think there’s a small-herd future, but there will never be the big operations, and I think the rest of the states are going the same way. In Wyoming, it’s getting tougher and tougher to get those forest permits because of endangered species — the wolves and the grizzlies. But it’s getting a little more popular to have little bunches of sheep, because of all the weeds that are popping up everywhere.
When Lawrence and I got married and we were ranching, you just ranched. And then it just started with politics and environmentalists and The Wilderness Act, and it seemed like, ever since 1975, it’s been meetings and regulations and wolves and endangered species. Our whole life changed to where we had to defend being able to do agriculture.
POV: What do you think of the film?
Elaine: It was sort of like watching your own home movie! Most people like it because there’s no narrative. You just fall right into living it rather than having someone tell you what’s going on. My husband really didn’t like that! He thought it should be explained more: what we were doing, where we were going and what happened in our lives. But I kind of liked the no-narrative part of it!
We found that the farther you were away from rural Montana and Big Timber, they didn’t mind the cursing. But the closer you were to smaller communities, they really didn’t like the cursing. It’s family oriented, other than the cursing.