In the high desert of the Sierra Nevada mountains, there exist the last nomadic sheepherders, carrying on age-old tradition generations in the making. Their stories are characterized by the solitude and hope of a shepherd; fortitude and faith of an immigrant; and most importantly a deep knowledge and respect for the land.
In a time when our wildlands are in peril, and generational knowledge is being lost, this disappearing cultural practice holds promise for reducing wildfires and regenerating the land, and with it our spirit. This is the story of one family preserving their heritage through keeping this tradition alive and the brave immigrants who work in this profession.
"Through this sheepherder's life I am able to witness what life may have been like generations ago. This existence is akin to a time capsule."
The Last Shepherd
It is dawn on a crisp October morning in Monitor Pass atop the high meadows of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Steam rises to meet the freezing air as the sheepherder Francisco Javier prepares his morning coffee. The crunch of the frosted grass underfoot is heard as the sheepdogs exit his mobile trailer that has been set up at his camp. Tonight it will snow. Atop a mountain, solitary except for a band of sheep and the dogs that become his coworkers and companions, Fransisco prepares for his day. This is a scene that has been played out time and again by his predecessors, the Basque sheepherders, who too came to America to do this job, and whose descendants now own the sheep which he tends.
Through Javier’s life, I am able to see what reality may have been like generations ago when the countless Basque Sheepherders first came to this unfamiliar landscape. In his life I see a reflection of a time long ago. As many immigrants are known, the Basque were known for their grit and strong work ethic. It was this pioneering spirit combined with the Gold Rush in California that lead many Basques to trade the Pyrenees mountains of the Basque Country for the ranges of the West. Upon arriving in this new land, many found that they had better luck selling mutton and wool to the mining outfits and found the rugged terrain of the Sierras good for grazing sheep.
Evidence of these brave sheepherders' existence can still be found carved into the landscape if one knows where to look. The history, art, and culture they brought with them is carved into the aspens groves where their sheep roamed over a hundred years ago. These arborglyphs are works of art captured in wood that have grown for over a hundred years, marking the passage of time and tradition.
In 1912 one of these sheepherders came to the United States from the Basque Country in search of a better life. His name was Raymond Borda. Through a true immigrant's story full of grit and determination he worked as a sheepherder in Dayton and one day bought his own sheep and ranch, founding Borda Land and Sheep in 1921. A full century later his grandchildren are still keeping this tradition alive as co-owners and operators of the business. Ted Borda, Joyce Borda Gavin and Angie Borda Page are possibly the last generation of Basque sheep operators in the Sierras, and Javier has taken up the role their grandfather was entrusted with over 100 years ago.
Javier came to Nevada from Mexico to work as a sheepherder for the Borda family two years ago, and to do a job that historically was only performed by immigrant workers. His brother has been working for the Bordas as a sheepherder for five years. They say the most difficult aspect of the job is the solitude; being secluded in a rugged landscape, vast expanses with no other humans as far as the eye can see and a home thousands of miles away is a difficult task.
Nomadic sheep herding is a dying tradition. This will very likely be the last generation of Basque sheep operators in the Sierras.
Sheep are prey animals, and with no defenses of their own, they require constant attention. The sheepherder and the dogs are their only protection. Here Javier is seen with his rifle, which has to protect the flock against predators, mainly coyotes. The previous year in this area there was a mountain lion that had taken a few of the lambs . Luckily he rarely ever has need of his weapon and the dogs scare most of the predators away.
“Between 1890 - 1900 there were at least 500,000 sheep in Washoe County, Ormsby County, and Douglas county. Now between these three counties, I would be it. This is it. So we went from 500,000 sheep to 4,000,
and over a hundred operators and now theres one.”
The Borda Family are third-generation Basque Sheep Ranchers. Their grandfather immigrated here in 1912 to herd sheep, and they are continuing his legacy. This very well could be the last generation that this tradition is kept alive.
When the sheep are not grazing in the high country and being looked after in the sheep camps, they are brought in to pasture. The sheep season begins with lambing in the early spring around March. Once the lambs are large enough the ewes and their lambs begin their trek through the Sierras. This is when they are used as excellent fire mitigation. They eat the invasive cheatgrass which outcompetes native grasses and is extremely flammable. The sheep graze for hundreds of miles from Carson City to Dayton, then down through the Pine Nut Mountain Range and all the way to Sonora Pass.
At this time it is September and the lambs are corraled and sold for meat. This is a way of life, and the ranchers are very proud that they take great care of their animals from birth to death. The ranchers and sheepherders are very in tune with the land and the cycles that govern the animals and the earth.
This summer of 2021, we saw the devastating effects of the Caldor Dixie, and Tamarack Fires on the Sierra Nevada mountains. It is apparent now more than ever that integrated solutions are desperately needed to mitigate fire risk and restore the land. The Forest Service has teamed up with Borda Ranch and Lamb as part of the Fire Fuels Reduction program to reduce fuels near towns.