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Shepherds of Coyote Rocks: Public Lands, Private Herds and the Natural World by Cat Urbigkit

Modified: Friday, Oct 5th, 2012

Here’s a fascinating, meditative, true account of one woman’s season spent tending sheep on Wyoming’s open range.

Award-winning Pinedale writer and photographer Cat Urbigkit seizes an opportunity to fulfill a longtime dream of guiding her herd across public lands near Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, an area of wilderness as left-alone as one could hope, and as potentially dangerous as you’d expect. Wolves and coyote are a common threat, as are the likes of the raven and golden eagle. The splendor of the landscape stands in parallel with the very real, raw possibilities of nature, from predators lurking to freezing temperatures and flash snowstorms.

Urbigkit sets out in late winter, on the cusp of lambing season, not without reassurance of her and her herd’s safety, which comes in the form large, Kazakh-bred guardian dogs — dogs essentially designed to detect and eliminate those ravenous and wild other canine who would harm the herd. But for all their imposing physique and vicious instincts, Urbigkit’s sentinels are, perhaps more essentially, giant teddy bears, and, as Urbigkit names and describes each one, we come to know the dogs as gentle, nurturing characters, as likely to nuzzle an ewe as they are to clean up her lamb’s afterbirth (so as not to attract coyote).

Interspersed among passages about rugged day-to-day life on the open range are Urbigkit’s impassioned asides on important, often-politicized issues related to public lands, how they’re used and protected — in her view sometimes wrongheadedly. Despite how it may seem to some, Urbigkit and her migrating sheep exist in no way against or in dominion over their wild surroundings, but rather aim to coexist, even to help sustain that precious environment. Transhumance — this seasonal migration of people with their livestock — is an ancient tradition, and Urbigkit shares several examples of how the practice has contributed to everything from the diversification of vegetation in world wildernesses to the necessary balancing out of predators and prey in a healthy ecosystem.

As both a treatise in defense of this way of life and an eloquent portrait of her journey for its own sake, Shepherds of Coyote Rocks brims with Urbigkit’s tenacity and grace, grit and compassion, as a writer and a sheepherder.

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