A proposed rule change from the Department of Labor could more than triple the wages ranchers are required to pay sheepherders, and opponents say put range ranchers out of business in Wyoming and across the West.
The Department of Labor released a draft of new rules for H-2A visa holders working in open range production.
Since the 1950s, sheepherders worked under special provisions set by the Department of Labor. These gave the herders a longer visa stay, allowed them to live in mobile housing and set a monthly wage for each state — $750, plus room and board in Wyoming.
The Department of Labor released a draft of new rules that within five years would raise the wages to $2,400 a month, plus room and board in Wyoming. Even with the proposed phase-in plans, ranchers can’t afford it, said Jim Magagna with the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association.
“The economics of the business are such that the operations simply could not survive that,” he said.
Magagna estimated more than half of Wyoming’s sheep industry would be impacted — the rest raise animals in pastures and don’t need herders.
The proposed changes come after four former sheepherders filed a lawsuit in 2011 saying the Department of Labor violated the Administrative Procedure Act and shouldn’t have adopted special procedures for herders without providing notice and a public comment period.
The case was dismissed in district court, but an appeals court reversed the decision and said the Department of Labor needed to follow the rule-making process for creating special procedures.
It did not require the rules change, but just that the department present them for public comment, said Kelli Griffith, executive director of the Mountains Plains Agriculture Service said in an email.
Herding is a unique job, said Evanston-based rancher Shaun Sims. The herders Sims hires are often from Peru and Chile and know how to handle horses, tend sheep and fight the loneliness of weeks of isolation.
Herders stay with the flock in case an animal becomes sick or injured. They thwart predator attacks. They regularly move the animals in an effort to keep the rangeland healthy and avoid overgrazing. On quiet days herders work only a few hours, while during lambing, or after a storm that scatters the sheep, the hours are long.
Last year the Western Range Association and Mountain Plains Agriculture Service, agencies that work with foreign workers and ranchers to fill jobs, had about 2,000 total herder jobs to fill, said Amy Hendrickson with the Wyoming Wool Growers Association. Only about three qualified Americans applied.
“For open range operations, the H-2A program is the only way to get workers,” she said. “It’s not that Americans aren’t able to do the job, they don’t want to do the job.”
Sims’ family has ranched near Evanston since 1865. Today, the Sims Sheep Company, which Sims operates with his father Mike Sims and his brother Steven Sims, is a large operation running 5,000 to 10,000 sheep and it’s reliant on its foreign workers.
“We’d like to continue it with our children and grandchildren,” Shaun Sims said.
Through the years they’ve dealt with predators and political issues and most recently worry about domestic sheep infecting big horn sheep with disease. Nothing he’s faced is as catastrophic as the change in rules could be to his ranch.
“It would cease to exist — instantly,” he said before the proposed rule came out April 15. “We can’t run an open range operation without herders. This stands a chance of absolutely causing ranches to go out of business, and not in a year or two, but right now.”
The repercussions would be felt nationwide, said Peter Orwick, executive director of the American Sheep Industry Association. It would impact wool mills and packing plants.
“It’s not just those family operations — while that’s significant in itself — we are talking over one-third of all the sheep produced in America would no longer be in production,” Orwick said.
The proposed changes also include some troubling definitions particularly when it comes to what constitutes range work, Orwick said.
“Lambing, shearing, shipping, weaning, those are the very acts of sheepherders, the full reason why you are grazing the sheep to begin with,” Orwick said.
Pat O’Toole’s family has ranched near Baggs since 1881. For more than 40 years the ranch relied on foreign herders. He uses about 12 herders on H-2A visas to trail his 6,000 sheep twice a year through 150 miles of desert, sagebrush and mountains.
“The thing about sheep is, you have to have people with them all the time because of the predators,” he said.
O’Toole and his ancestors endured storms, droughts, fluctuating markets, changing policies and predators, while keeping the ranch running. O’Toole thought he’d secured the most important thing for his ranch — its future. He has children and grandkids who love the business.
“But this is not survivable,” he said. “This would pretty much be the end of the range industry.”
He’s trying to think positively, even as he struggles to find an official who will speak to him by phone and answer questions on the more than 150-page document outlining the rule.
The public has until May 15 to comment on the proposed rule change, but Orwick hopes that time will be extended because of the length and complexity of the document. It also came at an especially hard time for ranchers who are calving, lambing and shearing, Orwick said. Once the public commenting period is finished, it usually takes 30 to 60 days before a final rule is published.