John Faulkner Interview

John Faulkner runs sheep in central Idaho. His family has been in the sheep business for 100 years. We met up with him in the Smoky Mountains, north of Fairfield, Idaho. We conducted this interview in the summer of 2009.

Tell us something about these sheep.
We’re here on Salt Creek allotment, which is north of Fairfield. We come in here about the middle of June every year. We’ll ship these lambs about the middle of August. This band has about 2,350 total and of that, 1,500 of them are lambs. And we’ve been on this allotment, well, since they started putting this road in back in the ‘60s.Faulkner standing in front of a sheepherder's trailer

How big is the sheep industry in Idaho these days?
It’s shrinking. I don’t think you’ve got over 25 to 30 sheep operations left outside of farm flocks. A guy asked me a few years back what would put us out of business. I said it isn’t economics, it’s just government. The folks in the Forest Service, their hands are so tied with what they can do, and they got so much paperwork they got to complete. And every time they make a decision, they’ve got somebody questioning ‘em on it. It’s just been a complete problem. But like I told you coming in, I’ve outlasted a lot of rangers. I’m still here, and I’ll be here till I kick over.

This area here where we produce sheep in this country, I’d say it’s the Cadillac of the sheep industry, because our lambs are born in California. And we start lambing Christmas and there’s not too many till the first of the year. And then we ship them in August. We’ll average close to about 140 pounds. They’ll gain about a pound a day sometimes. This year we got a lot of rain and they come stirred around like a bunch of drowned rats for the last 10 days. But we live with the weather all the time.

When did you get involved with the wolf issue?
The president of the Wool Growers in 1983 asked me to attend a meeting in Great Falls with the wolf recovery team. I was past president. And so I was on the recovery team for about 3 or 4 years until we completed our duties and turned it back to the interior. I was the only livestock person.

And we did agree on three recovery areas and a wolf recovery team in each area… Anyway, that was back in the 80s. It only took ‘em 10 years to come up with something and it’s a far cry from what our recommendations were.

We got the wolves now; we're going to live with them, and that's all there is to it. And I've resigned myself to it. We live with the coyote.

Anyway, we got the wolves now, we’re going to live with them, and that’s all there is to it. And I’ve resigned myself to it. We live with the coyote. Guard dogs have helped us a lot. Government was instrumental in getting the guard dogs in, which proved a lot better than what we thought it would be. I know my father saw the first guard dog. Said he always thought this outfit would go to the dogs.

What has it meant to you to have to deal with this additional predator?
It’s just another problem, we’re having another problem over in the Trinities. Like today, we’ve lost twelve this last week over there. We have no collars on them, so we can’t tell exactly where they are, but hell, I could hear ‘em howling right close.

We shoot in the air and that didn’t stop their howlin’. They just aren’t afraid. I think with hunting regulations coming out, why they’re not going to kill very many wolves, but I think it will make them respect us a little more. Just like the coyotes. And one thing, we don’t have a coyote problem up here anymore like we did with the wolves, or like we used to.

Now we still have the bears and the lion, so the wolf is just another predator. But right now, or it was before they delisted them, Defenders of Wildlife paid us for our losses. And I’m very skeptical if the government is going to have enough money to do that. They say they will… The way I understand it, make the wolf a game animal. Well, we get paid on bear and lion loss, but it’s a thousand dollar deductible and it still all has to be confirmed by Wildlife Services. So it really keeps Wildlife Services humping to catch up with the sheep and the losses we have.

A herd of sheep being movedWhat has it meant to the shepherds to have to deal with the wolves?
They talk about lobo, and if they get a chance, they’d like to shoot one. They’ve been afraid to shoot anything up until they’ve been delisted now, even though we’ve been authorized, if they get into the sheep to shoot ‘em. But they’re afraid of the government. They might be deported or something. They’re very skeptical about it, but they’re carrying their rifles. Most of them couldn’t hit their rear end if they was to be hung with them, really. Very poor shots. Get a little excited, but well, anyways we’ve got a couple of good guys.

We’ve known this was coming, like I said, way back in the 80s. The cattlemen, they didn’t want to have anything to do with anything, they didn’t want to get compensated nothing at the time. And I could see it was coming and as long as they were going to compensate me, it would help me that much. And so I hadn’t really fought it that hard.

There wasn’t really much you could do about it. Hell, it was an endangered species, already endangered, and they were putting them in. You better figure out how you were going to live with them. So that’s what we’ve done. Hell, we’ve had some losses, but we’ve been paid. I wouldn’t say adequately because if you get a pack of wolves working on a band of sheep, why, it makes them nervous. They’re not going to be spread out grazing like they should. It’s tougher on the range. They’re not putting on weight, and it can be a big problem that way.

Same with a bear. We’ve had bears get into our sheep and they start piling them up and if they keep working on them, why, hell, we’ve had to take the black sheep out a time or two, because if they see something black coming that might be a bear, hell, they all bunch together. It’s just one of the things we’ve got to do to live with it. We’ve got two men with this band and the three guard dogs.

I imagine if somebody weren’t quite as persevering as you, they might have just said forget about it.
Well, that’s right, and a lot of the old sheep men are getting old, frankly. A lot of the kids aren’t coming on. If you had enough money to get in the sheep business, you’d be a damn fool to get in today.

It’s just kind of like farming down in the Magic Valley. Why, you’ve got land down there for 7 or 8 thousand dollars an acre. There’s no way you can raise a crop and farm it out. It’s development that’s coming in. If we’re shoved out of business, we’ve got quite a bit of private land, a lot of will go for development, some I’ll put into cattle. And we’re running some cattle now too.

I think with hunting regulations coming out, why they're not going to kill very many wolves, but I think it will make them respect us a little more.

Why is it good to have sheep on the land?
In the first place, they’re not hurting the land; there’s not enough sheep anymore left. And I don’t think we can cut the forage down enough to really even protect it from burning, because there’s not enough of us. And then they have us spread them out which is the way we want to do it. We don’t want to bunch them up at all because we’re trying to make fat sheep off of nothing but grass and browse and their mother’s milk.

Up here we just got a philosophy of once over. Well, you can go behind these sheep two or three days later, especially after a rain storm and you can’t tell you’ve been there. But you get down in the desert where it’s very vulnerable, with cheat grass and it dries up and it’s gonna burn. It can do a lot of good. Up here, I question because it’s just not going to be grazed that hard.

We tried grazing leafy spurge down here on the South Boise. Now, they do that in Montana, but our sheep won’t eat it because there’s too much other stuff. So that didn’t work. Knapweed, they’ll eat on that. And some other weeds they’ll take out. Skeletonweed is another; they’ll eat that part of the time.

Do the sheep sense the wolves?
Oh, they hear them howl, that’s for damn sure. I don’t think they sense them. The dogs can, and think they get a lot of uneasiness if the dogs start acting up. And I know they will if they get to howling.

Faulkner and two sheepherdersWhat about the bears?
You want to watch them cause they’ll pile ‘em up. They could come in here, right this time of day. I’ve been over here before and walking down to the sheep about like this, and hell, two bears are eating on a couple of carcasses and lambs were roaming around, weren’t even scared. But then later on, I see ‘em get real scared and then like those two black sheep there, they see them run across an opening and they all come right together. You always got to watch.

How long have you been at this?
We’ve been running sheep on the Sawtooth, mainly Fairfield District, since 1943. Over in Lime Creek, that was my father, and then later on, my two brothers, and myself. Then my father, he passed away in ’91. And then one brother, he went to run cattle, and we had cows at that time, too. My youngest brother, he stayed with me, his family and my families, and as we progressed over the years, the kids grew up. They got married and I got grandkids now. And I’ve always been with the sheep.

And we’ve increased the size of our sheep for many years. When I got out of the Army in ’56, if we could ship a 105 pound lamb, we were doing good. These lambs today, I’m figuring on 141 pounds…

I’m really proud of these lambs. We’ve got 9-10 bands of ewes and lambs, and the first bands, they’re corkers. I figure they’re going to weigh, even with all the rain this year, I figure they’re going to weigh over 150 pounds. And we can make a living at that, even though it’s very expensive to truck them to California, and buy the pasture down there – it’s alfalfa. If I lose California, I’m already figuring I might lamb some rangeland up here in Idaho. And we’ve got quite a bit of private land.

If Forest Service gets too damn tough, why, then we’ll go to private land or we’ll sell it; some of it will actually go for housing developments because there’s quite a bit of ground over just west of Hailey.

You’ve always got to be thinking ahead and adapting to the conditions. And that’s the same with the wolves. I’ve been thinking about the bastards and we’ll be going right on ahead. We’ll get ‘em if I have to hire my own men to trap. Wildlife Services did a hell of a fine job and as long as we got them around to help us, we’ll be okay.

If your sheep could think, what would they be worried about?
Who those gringos are, walking around up there today, disturbing their siesta time! Predators are their main worry, and maybe where they’re going to get their next drink of water. But sheep that are raised like this, hell, they’ve got it made. To me this is sheep heaven. The feed’s great. We got lots of browse.

How are the volunteers from Defenders of Wildlife working out?
We’re working with the Defenders of Wildlife over there north of Ketchum in the Wood River Valley. There’s three outfits in there and they provide a couple people with each band, especially at nights and watch them. It depends on where the wolves are.

We've lost four, maybe five guard dogs to wolves so far, because they'll go out and challenge them. And if it's just one wolf, it usually takes off. But if there's more, why, it's just like a pack of gangs.

We have these telemetry wands they raise around; we can tell, if they have collars on them, where they are. But over here in the Trinities, we don’t have any collars on ‘em. And we’re having fits; we want to get ‘em collared. A trapper will catch one; he’ll probably collar it and turn it loose. So we know where in the heck they are. And that works pretty good.

Another thing that works really good is these high-powered, hand held spotlights. Maybe a million power. They’ll light up the whole mountain. If you hear them howling or getting close, especially if you have the telemetry going, we know where they are, and we can shine that light around. And make noise.

They want us to use firecrackers. We use rifles just in case we got a shot at them nowadays. We’ll still take care of ourselves. About all I can say. We’ll use all the help we can from Wildlife Services.

I mentioned earlier to you guys that maybe my biggest problem was the government. It is, but we deal with about 26 or 27 different government entities. Now then, probably about 15 of them are just doing good. But there’s another eight or 10 that are just – well they don’t know anything about sheep, to start with.

They treat us like cows, and cows as you know, they’re going to stay at the bottom near the riparian. Well, that’s a lot of the Forest Service’s problem, the riparian. The sheep don’t bother the riparian. They don’t even want to get their feet wet. They just drink, but they don’t want to get their feet wet if they can help it. They want to go to the top.

It’s an education process; it goes on all the time. Trying to tell people what we’re doing with the guard dogs, what we’re using even though the government requires us to have three guard dogs to a band. A lot of people don’t like that, because the guard dogs will come up and woof, woof at them, and it scares the peewadding right out of them. It’s an educational experience.

Faulkner and a sheepherder walking behind a herd of sheepTeach your sheepherders, teach the public. When the sheep are in the area, the Forest Service is putting up signs now ‘Guard dogs may be present.’ And keep your dogs out, because they’ll go after another dog.

So do your dogs actually deter a wolf?
We’ve seen ‘em. We had two guard dogs chase two pretty good sized wolves, chase them down out of Smiley Creek, out of the Sawtooth Valley. They chased them clear out of the land. We’ve lost four, maybe five guard dogs to wolves so far, because they’ll go out and challenge them. And if it’s just one wolf, it usually takes off. But if there’s more, why, it’s just like a pack of gangs. So if you’ve got gangs on the streets of Detroit or whatever, why, the wolves are the same way.

What don’t folks in town understand about what you’re doing up here?
Well, in the first place, they don’t understand sheep. If they understood human nature a little more, why, they’d understand what we’re doing. We’ve been on this range here; I can trace it back to different permittees for a hundred years plus. Our family goes back a hundred years. And we’ve done a good job on the range, especially the last 30 years.

I’ve never had a ranger in the last 30-40 years who hadn’t told me the range is looking good, and it’s doing better. They’ll be the first to tell you that. They just don’t have the time to get out and do what they really want to do. They really want to get out here just like we’re out here today. But they’re mired down with paperwork.

The Forest Service has got so much written down, why, hell, I can go in there and pick it apart myself. And that’s what the judge has to look at. So instead of the Forest Service managing it anymore, we’ve got a judge managing the lot of it.

Are you able to live with the wolf?
Have to. Yes. If we have a problem, we’re going to try to take care of it. And we used to have a hell of a lot of coyotes, and it used to be a whole big problem. But with guard dogs, it’s changed our losses. Over on the Jarbidge, which is on the south side of the Snake River, we were losing as high as 300 lambs to coyotes. In about 2 1/2 to 3 months, right around there. When we got the dogs in, when we lose 30, I think it’s a bad year.

Up here, if we can get enough of these wolves collared so we know where they are, like I said, with the spotlights at night – that’s about the only time that they come out.

So you’re seeming optimistic about this whole business with the wolves?
Well, if you talk to anybody who really knows me, I’m optimistic about most everything. I’m a little worried about politics right now, if you want to know the truth. But that’s gotta change, so I’m optimistic that way.