Running Sheep the Traditional Way

Brent Espill interview by Tiffany Moore

The Espil Ranch, by Clare O’Toole

For explorers of the outer reaches of Northern Nevada, hoping to get a feel for the life of the remote and legendary west, a trip into the desert lands that straddle the triangle northeast and northwest of Reno could turn up some surprises and iconic images of the past. An expedition during fall, or through the colder months, that took you by alfalfa pastures around Lovelock and BLM grazing land to the northwest; or, come spring, a visit to Pyramid Lake and the Smoke Creek Canyon district; or, during summer, a foray further west towards the Warner Mountains and Alturas in California, might reveal what has now become a rare sight in Nevada. If you keep your attention focused to distinguish their uncanny camouflage against the dry sagebrush and sandy soils, you may be able to distinguish large flocks of sheep, peacefully grazing, or steadily making their way along two hundred and fifty miles of trails between their winter and summer pastures. You won’t see the lone tent of a solitary Basque sheepherder. But if you are intrepid enough to step into the wilds, the remnants of the old Basque sheep camps can still be found. But you may catch sight of Basque rancher Brent Espil and his team of Mexican and Peruvian sheepherders. They watch and manage the sheep as they make between eight and twelve miles a day when on the move between seasonal grazing grounds.
The Espils are modern ranchers, very proud of their Basque heritage and proud of still being in the sheep business. Between Brent and his brother John, they own or lease land running sheep and cattle across a vast acreage that is mostly wilderness. At one time, and for a good hundred years from the mid 1800s onward, immigrant Basque shepherds kept the sheep industry alive. Brent and John Espil are now among the last of their kind to uphold the tradition, following in their grandfather’s footsteps. Martin Espil was one of the early Basque sheepherders, attracted to Nevada; making it to Winnemucca in 1897. The family has owned and run sheep from their Smoke Creek Desert ranch for fifty years. It is one of several properties owned or leased by the Espils over the years.
Brent described how he’d come across old sheep camps when out on horseback.
“There will be broken wine bottles and old Prince Albert cans – their little trash pile; and I’ll think about it. Before this, that poor Basque had to come out here having no idea where he was and they’d give him a Burro and say, ‘here’s your grub, here’s your coffee and here you go.’”
Running sheep, as Brent explained, is labor intensive, particularly when their grazing land is in the High Sierras. The land close to their home ranch cannot support them all year round. Bands of sheep, up to two thousand in a bunch, are trailed between the cooler, high elevation summer pastures and the lower elevation grazing plains and alfalfa pastures. Feed and water sometimes have to be shipped out to them. Since they are a modern, mechanized business, this can be done by truck; but there are times when the only way to reach the sheep is via horse and burro, reminiscent of the shepherding lifestyle of the past.
Brent aims to have the sheep near to the home ranch for the spring lambing season when they are most vulnerable and needing close attention. If there’s a drought, the mothers may not be able to make enough milk to support their lambs and predators will circle, cougars and coyotes, often purely for the fun of the kill.
“A lot of people got out of the sheep business years ago, laborers being hard to find. Many turned their BLM-allotted sheep grazing permits over to cattle. You don’t have to be there 24/7 for cattle. You can let them go for a few days or weeks or whatever and then move them from pasture to pasture. Cowboys, historically, have been easier to employ than good sheepherders.”
He explained how a combination of circumstances has all but killed off Basque sheepherding. The industry has faced some bad years. Wool was almost worthless not many years ago.
“It didn’t even pay to have the sheep shorn; ranchers couldn’t afford to pay shearers. Sheep didn’t make any money. Lamb prices were bad, predators were bad, and government regulations were really bad. One of the things that hurt a lot of the sheep people was the reintroduction of Bighorn sheep in certain areas. They won’t allow domestic sheep to be close to them. Historic sheep ranges have been turned over to Bighorns.”
“You have to have a passion for what you’re doing. If you don’t have that passion for it, after beating your head against the wall for a few years you say; to hell with it, I’m going to go to town where I can make some money.”
Brent’s wife, Victoria, works as a teacher for the school district. She has to make an eighty mile round trip, driving the dusty dirt roads to teach at the primary school in Gerlach. The economic downturn and rural isolation have forced the Gerlach high school to close, as the little town was severely impacted by the closure of the gypsum mine in nearby Empire. The few remaining students, mostly the offspring of ranching families, are taking their classes online. Victoria’s school’s total enrollment now consists of but nine pupils; one of those she collects on her daily commute. She considers herself lucky to have been able to keep her job. Their Espil’s son has thus far opted to seek his fortune outside of ranching, thinking it offers too little return for too much commitment. However other members of the wider Espil family have expressed an interest in continuing the family ranching tradition.
As a second generation Basque American, Brent Espil said he feels entirely American but likes to keep up with Basque heritage and culture when he has the opportunity. He and Victoria have been all over California and Nevada trying Basque restaurants, enjoying the food and the Picon Punch. They make a point of visiting San Francisco once a year to watch a baseball game and find another Basque restaurant to try.
If he gets a chance, Brent likes to take the family to a Basque festival, whether in Elko, Reno or Winnemucca. He admits there has been no way he could make the time to get to them all.
“That’s part of the reason there’s probably not a lot of people in this business as you miss a lot of the things even with the cattle end of the business.
“We’ve never had time to do the rodeo and can’t do a lot of the festivals, living so far out. By the time you get some place you’re tired and you don’t feel like going to a party or a festival with the younger people, especially at our age. In our younger days we did get away with it a little more. It’s hard. It seems like every time we take off there’s a catastrophe. Something happens on the ranch or with the sheep and you have to get home and take care of them.”


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