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Basques' tradition is a legacy of West

LAVA HOT SPRINGS, IDAHO — LAVA HOT SPRINGS, Idaho - With a cacophony of baa-aahs, the sheep rise from their afternoon nap and gambol up the hillside in search of new grazing grounds. A herder and his bounding dogs patrol for stragglers and wanderers, keeping the flock together in a scene that has changed little over the centuries that man has raised sheep.

That traditional sheepherding on the open range continues today, at a time when the livestock industry has become increasingly mechanized, is a legacy of one of the more unusual immigration stories to shape the American West - that of the Basque people.

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About 50,000 Basque natives or descendants live in the United States, mostly in the Western states. They began arriving in the mid-1800s, some to join the California gold rush, but most turned to the lonely work of herding sheep in the new American frontier, particularly those whose families had raised sheep in their homeland, a Rhode Island-sized region that encompasses provinces in Spain and France.

"It's a great heritage," says Henry Etcheverry, 54, who runs a 17,400-sheep operation that was started by his father, a Basque immigrant, and now has grown into one of the largest in the West. "The Basques have a talent for sheep, a natural husbandry. They know how to take care of them; they understand what the sheep are going to do in these vast expanses."

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Today, though, most of the Basques still involved in the sheep business are the owners rather than the herders. They employ a newer group of immigrants - mostly from Peru and Mexico, as well as a few from Nepal - to do the herding that their fathers once did.

Still, Basque-Americans value this remaining link to their past, particularly as it grows more distant with each generation. The economy in the Basque region improved over the years, and fewer young men felt the need to leave their homeland to make a decent living.

"The last Basque sheepherders we had were about 15 years ago," Etcheverry says. "Years ago, that's all there were."

On this day, Etcheverry drives into the highlands of the Portneuf Range northwest of his home in town to check in on several of the 11 herders working for him this summer.

The herders camp out in small trailers that look something like covered wagons but made out of metal. They have no electricity or running water, and Etcheverry visits every several days to bring food, supplies, mail and fresh water.

"Todo bien?" he greets herder Edwin Cordova, 27, as he drops off steaks, eggs, onions, crackers and other groceries.

They chat in Spanish about what Edwin needs next time Etcheverry visits - more soap - and other sheep business. Cordova's horse needs two shoes replaced, which Etcheverry does as the horse squirms under a hot midday sun.

Like other herders, Cordova is here from Peru on a guest-worker visa. The herders work on three-year contracts, return home and often come back for another three-year stint. Cordova is in his fifth year with Etcheverry and says he likes the work.

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The herders make $750 a month, with two weeks of vacation and medical benefits, and get free room - such as the trailer represents - and board.

Etcheverry drives to another camp, this time on the leeward, greener side of the range. Here, stands of aspen trees serve as historical markers of a sort: Sheepherders over the years have carved pictures, comments or their names into the soft bark of the trunks. The older carvings - researchers who have studied them call them arborglyphs - bear Basque names, the newer ones, Peruvian.

For Etcheverry, it's a walk down memory lane. In addition to the names of Peruvians he has hired over the years, there is a carving by Pedro, dated 1968, a Basque herder known to be so solicitous of his sheep that he would haul water in tubs from the streams because he said the animals preferred to drink it that way.

And then there is the tree with the neatly carved name of Jean Pierre Etcheverry, his father.

A native of St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, near Biarritz in the French Basque region, Jean Pierre Etcheverry was 16 when he arrived in the States in 1929. Like other young Basques of his time, he left in search of new opportunities - by his country's tradition, family property was passed down to the oldest son, leaving younger ones like Jean Pierre to seek their livelihoods elsewhere.

He worked as a sheepherder in Nevada, then in Idaho, for a salary of $50 a month, which was held by the rancher and paid in a lump sum after he quit. He walked with his herd - they didn't use horses back then - and a burro to carry his tent and cooking supplies. It was a hard life, but he was proud to have a job, particularly during the Depression years when others were in dire straits, his son says.

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"'You know what,' he used to say, 'I was happy,'" Etcheverry says. "He lived a quality life."

His father herded sheep for 12 years, and then was able to start his own operation, while his wife ran a Basque boardinghouse. Henry Etcheverry remembers as a boy the Christmas parties his mother used to give for her bachelor boarders, who would push back the furniture and dance with broomsticks or each other.

Jean Pierre Etcheverry died this spring, at age 90, but even toward the end of his life enjoyed accompanying his son to visit the sheep camps and ranges where he used to herd.

While there are still a few Basque herders who continue to work into their 80s and even beyond, many leave the solitary lifestyle long before that.

Several years ago, when AT&T; Wireless was looking for a way to illustrate how it brings the world to your fingertips no matter how remote your locale, they found the perfect spokesman in a Basque sheepherder in Northern California, Dio Choperena. One commercial showed Choperena surrounded by a flock, using a cell phone to call people from around the world - a group of Japanese businessmen, a New York cabbie - who soon show up on his lonely hilltop.

The relentless isolation of sheepherding eventually drove away many Basques, who decided they wanted to marry, raise families and otherwise rejoin the human race.

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"You would be alone for two years at a time," says Jean Sorhouet, 61, who like many attending the recent National Basque Festival in Elko, Nev., is a former sheepherder. "But we survived."

After about five years as a herder, he returned to his native French Basque country, but came back to the United States in 1970. Rather than herd sheep again, though, he took a job as a gardener and several years later started a landscaping business, which he continues to run in San Bruno, Calif.

"No young ones come anymore from the Basque country," Sorhouet says. "Plus there's no sheep anymore."

It's not just the Basques - overall, the sheep industry in the United States is declining, for a variety of reasons. Americans are eating less lamb and wearing less wool, says Julie Stepanek Shiftlett, an agricultural economist with the Colorado-based Juniper Economic Consulting firm. In addition, she says, foreign competition, particularly from Australia and New Zealand, has put the squeeze on domestic producers.

"You can import lamb more cheaply than Americans can produce it," Shiftlett says.

In 2001, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 65,120 sheep operations in the United States, down from 79,900 in 1995, she says. During the period, the number of sheep went down 8.9 million to 4.9 million.

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Etcheverry understands why fewer are interested in the hard work of raising sheep in today's climate. The West is changing, he says, with environmentalists pushing to keep grazing animals such as his off of public lands and encouraging the reintroduction of predators like wolves that often kill sheep.

"They think the West should be one big park with grizzlies running around," he grumbles. "How would they like it if we re-introduced bears to Central Park?"

Etcheverry argues that sheep are good for the range - they eat weeds and other low-lying growth - and that ranchers like him are good caretakers of public land.

"We would be foolish not to take care of it," he says. "If I abuse it, I'm out of business. We're on the same piece of land as we were in the 1950s, and it looks better than ever."

His sheep graze over close to 1 million acres, constantly moving depending on the season and availability of food and water.

The animals spend the first several months of the year in Rupert, Idaho, to the west of here; then in early spring they move eastward to an area south of Craters of the Moon National Monument, a desolate area of lava beds that remain from a volcanic eruption more than 2,000 years ago and that astronauts have used for training in preparation for moon landings.

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In May, the sheep start making their way toward higher ground here in the Lava Hot Springs area so that they can spend summer in a cooler climate. This month, they go to a feedlot for three to six weeks of fattening up, and then ultimately to slaughter.

Winter is lambing season, which starts the cycle all over again.

Each day is cyclical as well - the sheep generally like to sleep on a knoll, and in the morning will be herded toward fresh feeding grounds and a stream or other supply of water. In the heat of the afternoon, they'll find a shady spot for napping, and by late afternoon they'll be up again and ready for more grazing. They cover about a mile every two or three days.

Etcheverry's days are a mix of traditional ranch work and the usual cellular telephone calls, deals and traveling that define a business owner's life. As president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association, he regularly makes lobbying trips to Washington, and he also travels to New York to meet with the distributor of his lamb products.

But the wide-open West is his natural turf, and he takes great delight in surveying the vast range that his sheep traverse over the course of their short lifetime. Etcheverry remembers asking his father before he died if he ever imagined, coming from the tiny Basque region where the number of sheep in a herd numbered at most in the hundreds, not the thousands, that he would have so many animals grazing over so many acres.

His response: "Never in my dreams."


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