Sheep on the march 

Missoula sheep rancher John Stahl stops on the southern flank of Mt. Jumbo and points down at the ground.

"This is what I want you to notice," he says, singling out leafy spurge stalks, eaten bare by sheep before the weeds could go to seed and propagate. "The weeds aren't dead, but they won't spread." And now, insects are able to kill them, he explains.

On this soggy and gray July morning, Stahl, 52, is on his way to the top of Mt. Jumbo to help herd his flock of 500-plus sheep down the mountain, across the Rattlesnake Valley, and up into Missoula's North Hills. There, the sheep will continue their summer-long feast on leafy spurge, knap weed, toadflax and sulfur cinquefoil, the unruly noxious weeds that have taken root in large swaths of public lands surrounding Missoula.

"They've done a great job this year," Stahl says. "The expected trouble didn't happen. Something happened to them. They disappeared."

Stahl's referring to coyotes. Last summer, the predators killed 36 lambs, which cost Stahl more than $3,000. So far this year, only a few have died, but none are the victims of coyotes. Stahl thinks wolves might have followed elk onto Mt. Jumbo and taken out the competition.

Mike Thompson of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks says he doesn't know what to make of so many fewer sheep kills. "Certainly there are wolves in this country," he says, "but it could be any number of possible explanations."

Near the top of Mt. Jumbo, Morgan Valliant, the city's conservation lands manager, has a more immediate issue. He's instructing a group of Parks and Rec staffers and University of Montana researchers on how, and where, to shepherd the flock. If any sheep start to wander, he suggests the volunteers holler, clap or throw a rock.

"They've done a super good job this year," Valliant says as he navigates the slippery rocks and grass to the left of the flock. "This is the best I've seen."

For Stahl, perhaps they've done too good of a job. The sheep rancher says the flock's effective to the point that he needs to bring fewer to these hills each summer, with shortened stints. That means he gets paid less.

"It's a good thing," he says, "but it's a hard thing for me...when the economics start going to hell on you."

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