Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Leader of the flock

Rancher John Faulkner comes from self-made line

Express Staff Writer

John Faulkner watches his sheep at his ranch in Gooding. Faulkner has been tending sheep for most of his life, he says, having been born into his father’s sheep business. Faulkner’s father started the ranch in 1933 with only 25 ewes—now Faulkner has more than 12,000. Despite his flock’s growth, Faulkner said his success is the result of a constant struggle with the weather, wolves and the federal government. Photo by David N. Seelig

Sheep are in John Faulkner's blood. It's no surprise then, that the sheep from the Faulkner Land and Livestock Co. in Gooding have become the sheep—the ones that, in most years, scramble down Main Street in Ketchum and form the centerpiece of the annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival.

Faulkner credits—or blames—the Peavey family of Flat Top Ranch near Carey for his parade involvement, he said.

"You know Diane [Peavey]!" he said with a laugh. "She's the one that started it. They took their sheep down Main once or twice, but then they wanted to start using one or two others."

Faulkner said he's grown up in the sheep business. His father came to Gooding at the height of the Depression, around 1933. The elder Mr. Faulkner had lost his first 80-acre farm the year before and came to Gooding to start his business anew.

"He bought 25 ewes at a dollar apiece," Faulkner said.

His father also ran cattle and farmed a little, Faulkner said, but he never had a desire to follow in his father's footsteps. He went away to school and came back to an operation that had expanded to include more than 4,000 ewes, along with cattle and a significant amount of farmland. Eventually, Faulkner came around to the idea of ranching for a living.

Faulkner and his brother ranched together from then until 1983, when, Faulkner said, his brother split from the company.

"I kept the sheep and some farmland, and he took the cows and some farmland, and it went on from there."

When asked why he chose the sheep and not the cattle, Faulkner chuckled again.

"I just like sheep," he said. "Plus, they make more money [than cattle]."

Faulkner sheep are raised both for meat and wool. As Faulkner spoke to the Express, his ranch hands were shearing sheep that he runs on the Boise National Forest and on the Sawtooth National Forest's Fairfield Ranger District. The sheep that trail in the parade are the ones he runs on the Ketchum Ranger District, but he said it's more challenging to run sheep here due to competing interests over the land.

"Between the wolves, the Forest Service, recreation and [conservationists] ... it's harder to get up there," he said.


Faulkner is an outspoken opponent of environmental groups that seek to eliminate grazing on public land. He has sued for the rights to keep his grazing permits on public land. Though he's won every battle, he said he couldn't keep fighting the government forever.

"[Continuing lawsuits] could cost so much it would put us out of business," he said.

Predators also put a dent in Faulkner's profits. In an interview with Idaho Public Television in summer 2009, he said that in some years he lost to coyotes as many as 300 lambs in bands grazing south of the Snake River. Guard dogs have helped enormously, Faulkner said.

"[After] we got the dogs in, when we lose 30, I think it's a bad year," he told the network.

But wolves are more equipped to take on guard dogs, and Faulkner said these reintroduced predators have caused problems for his flocks.

"We've had a lot of wolf problems since they've been introduced," he said. "They're a lot like dogs and coyotes. They're predators in their natural habitat. A wolf came right down, beat the hell out of a guard dog."

At one point after reintroduction, Faulkner had to contend with 23 wolves in the Steel Mountain pack located on the Fairfield Ranger District near Atlanta, west of the Wood River Valley. He said his losses in the Ketchum region have been minimal, but have been "heavy" around Fairfield.

"You take that many hungry wolves, you're going to have problems," he said.

Still, Faulkner said he remains optimistic. The hunting season in 2009 has helped to thin the predators' ranks, and Faulkner said he's lost fewer sheep since the larger packs have dispersed.

Faulkner's pride in his sheep is evident in the way he speaks about his stock.

"We're making a fat lamb off of nothing but mother's milk and grass," he said.

He said he's still looking to make his business bigger and better, and his next goal is to buy more private land and keep his sheep off public land, which would give him more control over their feed.

"If you're not born into a sheep operation, you'd be a damn fool to buy one," he said. "We have so much money invested in range, private land, equipment—it's not a cheap operation."

Still, he said, he doesn't plan to leave the ranching life anytime soon.

"I can't see retiring," he said. "I've seen quite a bit of the world, and I like it right here."

Katherine Wutz:

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