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Premiere Date: July 5, 2011

Sweetgrass in Context

The Allestad Family

Since the early 20th century, the Allestad family ran sheep in Sweet Grass County. In 2004, they sold their ranch as well as their grazing permits, marking the end of an era of running sheep in Sweet Grass County, Montana.

The Allestads sold their 6,000-acre ranch near Rapelje, Montana, and their grazing allotments in the wilderness in 2004, marking the end of an era for sheep grazing in Sweet Grass County. Lawrence Allestad's family had run sheep in the area since the early 1900s, and as many as 30 bands of sheep once grazed in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness at one time. Under a public grazing permit that had been handed down in his Norwegian-American family for generations, Allestad was the final rancher to drive his herds into Montana's rugged Absaroka-Beartooth range north of Yellowstone to fatten on sweet summer grass.

The family members and their hired hands conducted the drives much as their pioneer forebears had — on horseback, with dogs for herding and guarding, and armed with rifles to frighten away bears and wolves. Over the years, better gear — walkie-talkies, four-wheelers and cell phones — took some of the edge off a hard life, but still the work remained exhausting and dangerous for both men and animals.

In Big Timber, the film discovers the seasonal work-a-day world of sheep ranching. Under the watchful eyes of family patriarch Lawrence, his wife, Elaine, and son, Billy, in winter the herd nuzzles through the snow in search of feed. In spring, the sheep are shorn of their thick winter coats. Lambs are born and ewes have to be enticed to nurse offspring that are not their own. Other lambs have to be hand-fed. Raising sheep remains an intense, hands-on business.

Until summer arrives, the work is a family endeavor, with kids, grandparents, neighbors and even passersby all pitching in. But after the Fourth of July, when rodeos, dog trials, shooting competitions and haying contests break out all over Sweet Grass County, the hard and lonely work of an old-time drive into the mountains begins in earnest for hired hands Ahern and Connolly. It's a grueling 150-mile round trip, climbing high into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness — on hoof the whole way — and it lasts from July until September.

The grass is sweet, but getting a herd of sheep to it while staving off predators is no picnic. For Connolly and Ahern, who are escorting a virtual buffet on hooves, encounters with bears or wolves are inevitable. The team's dogs often bark at night, as coyotes and wolves howl, keeping the herders awake and bringing them out of their tents to fire rifles to scare off the wild animals. One night the dogs fail to bark, and the herders begin to lose sheep.

The last Old West sheep drive — a family's hundred-year tradition of work — comes to a simple conclusion, with only a hint of nostalgia. In a pickup truck on the way back to the ranch, Ahern is asked what his plans are. "I wasn't going to worry about it for a week or two," he replies. In fact, the ranch and most of the sheep were sold in 2004.

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