Friday, May 29, 2009

Mountain Bikers: Respect Ewe Turns

By Bas Hargrove, The Nature Conservancy

This is my favorite time of year in Boise.

The flowers are blooming, trees are leafing out, and the trails are drying up enough to ride. So I was in a fine mood on this evening in May, pedaling out the Watchman Trail, one of Ridge to Rivers’ latest additions to our community’s excellent trail system.

Ridge to Rivers does terrific work in negotiating access for trails that cross a mixture of public and private land, and Watchman is a great example of collaboration with partners like the Bureau of Land Management and the Southwest Idaho Mountain Bike Association in developing trails for hikers, bikers, equestrians and other users.

As my riding partner and I rounded a bend, we came upon a band of several hundred sheep stretching across the steep hillsides above, below, and on the trail ahead of us.

As we approached the first of the woolies, we coasted to a stop and began threading our way through the band. I looked with some trepidation at the two Pyrenees guard dogs on the trail ahead, hoping for a calm reaction to the strange interlopers on our ‘iron horses’ interrupting the flock’s evening graze.

Nice doggies.

With a little coaxing, the dogs allowed us safe passage through their charges. As we walked our bikes out the back end of the flock, we encountered the herder and exchanged pleasantries.

As we’d passed through the sheep, I’d noticed the impact the new trail had on the land. Excavation had left a swath of bare earth up- and downslope much wider than just the narrow singletrack we were riding.

Herding the sheep out of our path hadn’t helped matters, because it forced them to climb above us in steep spots where they might not normally tread, causing extra erosion. I was hopeful, however, that this time next year native grasses and forbs might begin to fill in the bare patches.

I was thinking about this confluence of human and livestock impacts as I got back on the bike, and noticed a four-pack of bikers just entering the sheep zone.

The lead rider let out a whoop and continued his rapid clip into the heart of the band, starting a stampede of sheep up the hill across the trail.

His actions also raised the ire of the alpha dog, who ran barking down the hill toward the riders. This set the lead rider to shouting at the dog and compelled the bikers to go faster, which scared the sheep even more. It was a mess.

My buddy and I continued down the trail, and the other riders soon caught up. As the lead fellow approached me from behind, he muttered something to the effect of, “Damn sheep. They’re destroying the trail. Hey, mind if I pass?” When I pulled over to let them by, I could only shake my head in wonder.

I wondered if the herder had been there last spring, and how the annual trek through the Foothills had changed with the addition of this trail. I wondered at the cluelessness of my fellow biker who apparently took it for granted that this stretch of trail was his birthright and that the sheep were just an obstacle to his enjoyment. And I wondered what we can all do as Foothills users to foster understanding and a light touch on the land.

Fortunately, the Idaho Rangeland Resource Commission has asked the same question, and with its partners, came up with the Care and Share program to educate folks about best practices for grazers and trail users.

Bas Hargrove works for The Nature Conservancy in Boise and participates in the Idaho Working Lands Coalition.

Photo by Kirk Keogh,

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