Ted, my older rancher-turned-butcher friend, handed me the white package, as we wrapped up business in his spotless cutting shop. His apron still had some telltale marks of his trade, the color red slightly Jackson Pollock-ed across the canvas of his white cotton frontispiece.
“What’s this, Ted?”
“It’s the loin of a bighorn sheep I processed today. The guy gave it to me. He just wanted the head and horns.”
It was typical behavior for a trophy hunter. He was just looking for a head to mount above his mantle. I’d never eaten a piece of wild sheep before. “What was the guy, some sort of vegan or something? I thought that sheep was supposed to be pretty good.”
Ted’s weather beaten face bent into a grin. “I thought I’d pass a piece on to you to see what you thought.”
“Thanks, Ted. I’ve never had the pleasure.” I shook his hand as I opened my pickup door and threw the package on the front seat. The way bighorn sheep populations were these days, such a treat was rare. Wild sheep, once the mainstay of the Shoshoni diet in our part of Idaho, were hard hit by disease brought to the New World by colonists. There are currently only about 10 percent of the pre-settlement numbers left. Hunting tags are very limited and by lottery only; when you get one, Idaho Fish and Game rules state that you can never hunt a bighorn sheep again for your entire life. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime hunt.
Tags are cheap enough; anyone can afford one, but winning the lottery and actually getting a tag is very rare.
There is one other option, though: the North American Foundation for Wild Sheep places single tags per state at auction in a fundraising effort. The Montana version of that tag recently sold for $480K. In that situation, it’s all about the money. If you have enough of it, there’s no lottery for you.
I wondered how much that loin Ted gave me was worth if it came from that sheep. My guess is that I was holding a 3 pound piece of meat that could be worth around $12,000; each cutlet off the loin would be valued at around $1500 if it came from the high bid option.
Caryl and I cooked it up on the grill that night, with just a little salt and pepper. It had a mildly distinctive flavor, but it was very good. Not gamey in the least. In fact, it was surprisingly similar to a well-raised lamb. We found it better than the many elk and deer we had eaten. Tender, to boot. It was too bad it was unusual fare; a person certainly could get used to meat such as this. I know more about flavors and raising beef and grazing and soils now than I did a few years ago. Reflecting on that delicious bighorn loin, I recognize that the flavor was more similar to our wild beef than it was to commercial lamb, and I ponder how the mountain soils and the wild grasses impart some similar flavors in different species.
I realized it was why the Native Shoshoni in our area called themselves The Sheepeaters: bighorn sheep were readily available, and they were good. Wild sheep are still fairly common on our summer range, Hat Creek. They frequent our 700 acre Little Hat Ranch, nestled in the center of our summer range. The ranch sits at a confluence of 5 steep walled wilderness canyons and is a natural outlet for animals moving down the mountain funnels into the Little Hat valley. Trails over the highest rocky knobs can still be seen as a signature of centuries of sheep use.
Sheep inhabit the roughest terrain in the mountains; no elevations or exposures daunt them. Instead, they find security in it. Predators are not nearly as agile and adept at negotiating the rocks as they are. The girls and I were backcountry skiing just a month ago at nearly 10,000 feet. High above us in the windswept and snowless tundra scree at around 12,000 feet ancient sheep trails could still be seen.
There’s a special place I enjoy visiting on Little Hat ranch, I think because my imagination always runs a little wild there. The spot sits along a steep and very rocky hill perched above the thickly willowed creek bottom. I’m certain animals were forced historically to cross the hill to go upstream or downstream along Little Hat Creek, because of the impenetrable willows and birches along the creek and what may be lurking for them down there (cougars, bears or wolves). So elk, deer, bison and sheep chose the high road; they still do today, as evidenced by calling cards they leave behind.
We use the same trail to move cattle through the canyon. The rocky mountainsides are too rough to traverse; the willows are still thick; going is easier on the ancient high trails along the slope and over the hill. Each time I ride horseback over the little knob, I pull up my reins and look across the rock fields we have just picked our way though, using the old trails. Low sagebrush and rabbit brush occasion the rocks, but then, my eye wanders over to the deep depressions in the uphill side of the trail.
They are obviously man made, excavated by ancient hands in the abundant shale, and large enough to hide 2 or 3 people. Pit blinds, we call them, so strategically placed that an unsuspecting sheep on the trail would be an easy mark for a Native archer with an obsidian point crouching in the depression above the trail. It would be only a maximum of a 100 foot shot. Sheep still walk this trail today; likely ten times more did in those days.
And like Caryl and I, those native Sheepeaters would feast on the loin of lamb-like flesh, dining on the delicacy we so savored in a far later day. I knew it had to be a long time ago that these blinds were constructed because there was no color difference in the rocks in the pit versus the undisturbed ones that sat outside it. Like most of the rocks in the pure air of our part of the Rockies, rock color is defined not by the mineral content of the rocks themselves, but rather, the coloration of the lichen life that densely occupies the sunny side of the rocks: bright orange, sage green, rich browns.
When disturbance turns over the lichen encrusted rocks, the uninhabited undersides become exposed, changing the color of the rocks. But it takes a long time for the lichens to colonize the rock- up to several hundred years. That means that Natives excavated these blinds centuries before we showed up; enough time for the amazing algae and fungi symbiosis that creates lichens to perform their slow work of painting our dark volcanic rocks.
I find it interestingly ironic that our delicacy of today, a native sheep, was their staple. Bighorn sheep was the foundation of their diet. No other animal thrived quite as well in the rocky country we call Hat Creek, capturing the mineral essence that provided flavor and health to a prehistoric race of people. We can only mimic what they had with our own ungulate: wild Angus beef that we shepherd across exactly the same native and wild ranges that are still untouched by plow or plundering agricultural hubris.
As a result, we can deliver some of those same flavor components. And you won’t have to lay in wait on a rocky pit blind bed until your dinner walks by (and you hopefully do not miss). It is easier, after all. But the same wellness benefits that these Native ancients–a truly Paleo people–enjoyed are yours because of your partnership with us.
Thanks for coming to our table. And there is one other benefit: our steaks are significantly less expensive than $1500 per ribeye.
Glenn, Caryl, Girls and Cowhands at Alderspring