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The lonely lives of Colorado sheepherders

Sharon Sullivan
Grand Junction Free Press
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Photo courtesy of Jacob Ripple-Carpenter Colorado ranchers depend on foreign nationals to come to the United States to tend to their sheep.
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Sheepherders from Peru and Chile come to Colorado to do work Americans apparently don’t want to do.

Migrant sheepherders sign three-year contracts and live in “campitos” – mini trailers with no bathroom, no shower, no running water. Water is delivered to the workers in 5-gallon jugs.

A former Chilean sheepherder supervisor named “Juan” currently lives in Fruita and works for Colorado Legal Services as an outreach worker. He compiles information on working standards, living conditions, pay and injuries suffered by workers in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.



Juan left his job supervising sheepherders near Craig and moved to Fruita after becoming seriously ill from a tick embedded in his groin. Juan was able to contact a Grand Junction friend who came and brought him to a hospital.

At a Western Colorado Justice for Immigrants meeting in Grand Junction, Juan invited Tom Acker, a Mesa State College Spanish professor, and another Grand Junction man, Jacob Ripple-Carpenter, to visit sheepherders camped on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service grazing lands.



Acker said he’s interviewed more than 100 sheepherders from at least five different ranches. Acker, Ripple-Carpenter and the former sheepherder are working to bring attention to what they call abysmal treatment of the sheepherders. Juan said “los patrones” take workers’ visas, passports and other documents.

The isolation is terrible, Acker said. In Chile, sheepherders are accustomed to going home at the end of the day and being with family. In Colorado visitors are discouraged, Acker said.

“It’s a hard job, a lonely job, absolutely,” admits Bonnie Brown, executive director of the Colorado Wool Growers Association.

However, she contends it’s not as bad as some people say. Sheepherders are able to read a book, go fishing or visit neighboring camps at times, she said.

Ripple-Carpenter said he visited about 80 different sheepherders in northwestern Colorado and has never seen a fishing pole.

“These guys rarely get a day off,” Ripple-Carpenter said. “Can you imagine being on a three-year contract and never getting a day off?”

The sheepherders tell him it’s “not permitted,” Ripple-Carpenter said.

Acker said the contracts the sheepherders sign specify the ranchers are responsible for their employees’ bedding and insulated boots and thermal coveralls necessary for the extreme winter weather. But Juan’s $200 coveralls and $200 boots were deducted from his wages, Acker said.

On the other hand, ranchers pay the airfare for their sheepherders to and from the United States, Brown said.

Workers primarily from Peru and Chile, and sometimes Mexico and Bolivia, come to the U.S. on H2A visas allowing foreign nationals to perform temporary agricultural work. After that time they must return to their country of origin for three months. Many sign up for another three-year contract despite the harsh working conditions.

In Colorado the required monthly wage is $750, to be on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s a wage that was set in 1967, Acker said.

“If the industry is relying on cheap labor how can we expect the standard of living of Americans to raise. Local economies will be harmed if we’re not complying with standards of fair treatment and wages,” Acker said.

Both Acker and Juan said abuse of sheepherders is prevalent in the industry.

Brown disagrees with that assessment. “Abuse is absolutely not acceptable.”

“The sheep industry is not unlike any other industry out there. There’s good ranchers and there’s a few bad ranchers. And there’s some great sheepherders and some that are not very good,” she said.

Housing is monitored by three organizations, Brown said – the U.S. Department of Labor, and Western Range Association and Mountain Plains Agricultural – two groups that coordinate the migrant workers program.

“If it was so bad why are they [South Americans] renewing contracts?” asked Brown. “Is it abuse or a really tough working environment? Before herders leave their countries they get a job description. They know what the job is.”

Colorado Legal Services in Denver has received 17 complaints of sheepherder abuse in the past two years.

“I think these folks are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of workers who have complaints because of the climate of fear,” said Jennifer Lee, managing attorney of the Migrant Farmworkers division of Colorado Legal Services.

Living without a bathroom, and having to use a shovel for three years, and earning $750 a month are unfair and unjust conditions, Lee said.

“It doesn’t even meet minimum wage, but it’s legal and widespread,” Lee said.

While there’s no electricity and the workers aren’t “getting a furnished apartment,” a lot of the sheep camps are pretty nice, Brown said.

When Colorado Legal Services receives a complaint, they first try and reach an agreement with the rancher to resolve the situation. If the rancher is a member of the Salt Lake City-based Western Range Association, Western Range is notified to sort out the problem.

“If there’s abuse and they don’t fix it, they’re kicked out of the organization and they can’t get workers through us anymore,” said Western Range Executive Director Dennis Richins. Richins said he believes the vast majority of sheepherders are happy and properly cared for.

“Years ago we used to get complaints quite a bit,” Richins said. “But these days we don’t get a lot of complaints. Most herders come back for third and fourth contracts. They can’t be abused too much if they want to come back.”

Sheepherders with complaints have options, Brown said. They can contact Western Range – most have cell phones, she said – they can go to another ranch, or they can go home.

Brown was asked why with such high unemployment is the U.S. bringing in foreign workers?

“Americans would rather sit on their butt and get welfare than work for a living,” Brown said. “Americans are not raising children to go out and be farm laborers.”

The South Americans come, not fully comprehending what the living conditions will actually be, Acker said. With little or no English speaking skills, and no drivers license, workers often feel trapped, he said.

“People come with the preconceived notion that they’re coming to a first world power. They anticipate decent working conditions and decent food,” Acker said.

ssullivan@gjfreepress.com.


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