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Apr 16 2019

A Little Wool Goes a Long Way

Ranchers and conservationists cement unlikely partnerships in southwest Montana's Ruby Valley

Exploring Montana, Featured

The nerve center of Helle Rambouillet sheep ranch is set a quarter-mile back from Montana Highway 81, tucked into a shallow draw that helps keep the sheep in and the road noise out. There’s a neat house on the northwest side of the property, ranch trucks in the driveway, and a handful of trees planted along the house’s southern end. They must provide much-appreciated greenery and shade in the summer months, but in mid-March they’re the dry gray-brown of cracked bentonite. 

To the north, the Beaverhead River braids its way towards Twin Bridges, where it will be joined by the Big Hole and the Ruby and transmogrify into the Jefferson. To the east, the low flanks of the Ruby Mountains grow out of the plains in the middle distance. Look south, down towards Idaho, and you can see the snowy tops of the Blacktail and Centennial Mountains. 

Closer in, though, it’s all about the sheep. There’s a large barn set across from the house, surrounded on three sides by pens, feedlots, and fences. Despite their obvious presence, there isn’t a sheep in sight – in the summer, they’ll graze up high in the Gravellies and Snowcrests, but right now they’re on the ranch, either in the foothills of the Rubies, where they’re kept under tight guard by three big Akbash sheepdogs, or already in the barn, queued up for shearing. 

When I walked through the single sliding door that morning alongside Emily Cleveland, MWA’s southwest Montana field director, there were 600 pregnant ewes tightly packed into a pen at the far end of the barn, prepared for, or maybe eagerly awaiting, shearing. At our end of the barn, a knot of people talked quietly between sips of coffee from styrofoam cups. Some wore Muck Boots and cowboy hats, some trail shoes and Patagonia puffy jackets. 

These were the folks who made up the braintrust of the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance (RVSA). The Alliance formed in 2016, when a group of conservationists and ranchers began to recognize that the public lands and working ranches of the Ruby Valley were inextricably bound and, wouldn’t you know it, we all love these wildlands and have a lot of shared values so we might as well work together to protect it all.

John Helle, the third-generation proprietor of the ranch and an RVSA partner, had extended an invitation to the Alliance’s conservation partners to come on down and see the ranch, learn about the operation, and maybe even try their hand at a little shearing.

We made some introductions while we watched the five shearers, wearing tapered pants that split at the hem to cover their soft moccasins, sharpen their combs and cutters as they geared up for a six-hour day of shearing. They came from the Montana State University sheep extension program, from Glendive, and from neighboring ranches. Many would spend the spring shearing at ranches across Montana and Wyoming. Some would even travel to New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa to work during their shearing seasons. 

The shearers settled into their positions on an elevated platform and fired up their shears. Somebody clicked on a stereo, and country music filled the barn. From the crowded pen, a wooden chute ran up behind the shearing platform. On the near side of the chute, five guillotine-style sliding doors opened up onto the platform. The sheep were driven up the chute, and one by one the shearers wrestled them through the doors, flipped them onto their rumps, belly out, and stuck one of the sheep’s front legs between their own. As the shearers worked, they’d roll the sheep over, making sure the fleece came off in one piece.

When a sheep was shorn, the shearer would give it a quick shove down another chute into a pen behind and below the platform. One of the workers on the floor – sometimes John, sometimes his son Evan – would grab the fleece and throw it onto one of the four slatted skirting tables, like someone tossing a sheet onto a bed. They would rotate the table, plucking off bits of dirty wool and tossing them onto the floor as they went, before gathering up the fleece in a bundle, always with the shoulder on top, and carrying it to another skirting table in the back.

From there, one of John’s workers would measure the diameter of a sample of the wool – narrower fibers go close to the skin, thicker fibers are used for outerwear –  sort it into A, AA, or AAA piles, and bale it for transport. Most Helle Rambouillet wool is woven into yarn that’s used by Duckworth, a Montana-based company of which John is a co-founder, to create their line of American-made wool clothing. 

After a few hours of shearing, skirting, sampling, baling, and a break for lunch, four of us piled into John’s flatbed pickup – one of John’s border collies hopped up onto the bed – and rumbled east towards the Ruby Mountains. We followed snow-covered ranch roads that only John could see, bouncing past long-abandoned homesteads, down narrow draws, and up steep bluffs until we pulled up on a narrow plateau. The Rubies rose to the east and the Pioneer Mountains to the west, and in a draw to the north huddled a few hundred head of sheep.

John – wearing glasses, a salt-and-pepper beard, and a Stormy Kromer cap – scratched the giant Akbash that bounded up to greet us. The other two dogs stayed put, not willing to leave their posts just to say hello to this gang of strange faces. The wind whistled around us and we stood quietly, surveying this corner of the 20,000-acre ranch.

Somewhere on the drive, the line between working and wildlands had begun to blur. It felt wild up here, even though we were still on the ranch. Despite its 20,000 acres, Helle Rambouillet depends on Forest Service grazing permits in the Gravellies and Snowcrests to run sheep in the summer, and without vibrant and healthy public lands, the operation would struggle to survive. That’s the beating heart of the RVSA – the understanding that the ranching way of life and wild open lands are dependent on each other. Ranchers and conservationists want to see our open spaces preserved and protected. Nobody wants roads and developments to replace the sagebrush and high-country prairie.

After 10 minutes, the wind drove us back to the truck, and John drove us back to the barn. The shearers were wrapping up their work when we pulled up, and when the last sheep had been relieved of its winter coat, John led us into the pen to help his collies drive the sheep out of the barn and into one of the outdoor pens. Without wool, the sheep looked small and angular. They’d require twice as much feed now, without the thick insulation they’d grown accustomed to.

Shearing done, the day wrapped up the only way it could: with a lamb feast at a neighbor’s house. Shearers, RVSA partners, friends, neighbors, and families worked their way through ribs, chops, shanks, potatoes, asparagus, grilled onions, and peach cobbler cooked in a Dutch oven the size of a manhole cover. Ranchers and conservationists sitting at the same tables, sharing food, stories, and laughs, surrounded by a patchwork of working ranches and wildlands – maybe there’s hope for us after all. 

- Alex Blackmer, MWA communications coordinator

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