Missoula's sheepherder combines ranching, conservation to vanquish weeds

Missoula's sheepherder combines ranching, conservation to vanquish weeds


Michaelyn McDonnell, atop her horse Magic, came over the North Hills behind the Moon-Randolph Homestead followed by nearly 150 sheep on Monday.

The sheep are there to help with invasive weed suppression as part of Missoula’s targeted grazing program, which allows the city to promote the growth of native species without using herbicides, said Morgan Valliant, the conservation lands manager.

This is the first time in about three years the sheep have grazed the North Hills. That’s because Valliant found that leafy spurge had been grazed to a low-enough density in previous years that continued grazing wasn’t beneficial. A few years later, the leafy spurge is now coming back and so are the sheep.

McDonnell said many of the sheep in the current herd have never eaten leafy spurge before. That’s why the herd includes Billy, the goat, who hangs out more often with the dogs than the sheep. Billy, who’s 12 and familiar with the spurge on the North Hills, will dig right in and then the sheep will follow suit, McDonnell said.

Targeted grazing takes a lot of knowledge and experience. This is McDonnell’s second season as the shepherd. The season, which used to be nearly six months long in the days when the invasive plants were less under control, is only about six to eight weeks now. Last season the herd spent most of its time on Mount Jumbo.

McDonnell is studying rangeland science at the University of Idaho after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She knows when to graze and when to move the sheep to a new area. McDonnell knows that weeds need to be grazed around the flowering and bolting stage, right before the plants are about to go to seed. She said that runs down the seed bank left in the soil.

Last semester, McDonnell said she took a sheep science course, knowing that she’d be out in Montana again this summer. She even helped with this year’s lambing, helping welcome the lambs she now works with.

McDonnell, who grew up in an agriculture-based community, believes that agriculture can work hand-in-hand with conservation. Based on her own experience, she knows that ranchers want to know how to better manage their land. In Idaho, she works as a rancher’s tutor, showing ranchers how to properly monitor their allotted Forest Service grazing lands.

Grazing can be a very natural process for the landscape, McDonnell said.

Sheep first came to Missoula’s open spaces to control invasive plants in 1999 when Valliant received a grant while studying at the University of Montana. In the '90s, Valliant said, there was a lot of research into using sheep to control weeds.

The grant gave him the opportunity to study leafy spurge control. John Stahl, a local rancher, donated 10 sheep to graze at the bottom of the M trail, but unfortunately, many of the sheep died after being attacked by dogs.

The program was then picked up with the creation of the conservation lands manager position. Valliant’s predecessor played around with 50 or 100 head of sheep and varying acreage before finding the sweet spot.

Valliant said it is important that hikers take note of signs and keep their dogs leashed. McDonnell said that so far this season she hasn’t had any problems, and many hikers and locals thank her for her work.

“My biggest worry is having people run through the herd of sheep,” she said. Running through the herd will cause the sheep and dogs to run. McDonnell said she is primarily concerned for the safety of the hikers.

The team of animals that McDonnell works with — the horse Magic and three dogs — have been herding sheep for years.

In the past the team worked for years with Enrique Marquez Banda, from Chihuahua, Mexico. Changes in immigration laws and a shorter herding season made it impossible for Banda to continue working. His last season was in 2015. After years of working with Banda the dogs are very smart and most likely bilingual, she said.

“The dog does 85 percent of the work,” McDonnell said.

The dogs make her job easy, McDonnell said. Through years of experience they know where the sheep need to go and often don’t require the same commands a lesser experienced dog might.

Over the past two summers McDonnell has sparked a new interest in sheep and targeted grazing.

“I never thought I’d be doing anything like this,” she said.

She is hopeful the success of Missoula’s targeted grazing program shows that this program is an effective and marketable form of urban interface conservation.

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