Sweetgrass Poster

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Film chronicles end of sheep operation

The aluminum-walled sheep wagon hasn’t moved for years.

Elaine and Lawrence Allestad used to use it when they took their sheep up into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness. Now it is parked in front of a two-story house in a subdivided cow pasture.

The Allestads sold their 5,000-acre ranch near Rapelje and their grazing allotments in the wilderness in 2006, marking the end of an era for sheep grazing in Sweet Grass County. Lawrence Allestad’s family had run sheep in the area since the early 1900s, and as many as 30 bands of sheep once grazed in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness at one time.
Now, a documentary following the Allestads’ sheep operation in those final years entitled “Sweetgrass,” by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, is making waves in cinematic circles nationwide. The New York Times called it “essential,” “graceful” and “astonishingly beautiful.”

“Impressive,” the New Yorker review said.

Castaing-Taylor spent three summers with the Allestads, filming and helping with the sheep drives. In all, the film took eight years to complete.

When he began filming in 2001, he did not know 2003 would be the last summer sheep would be grazed in the wilderness area. But Castaing-Taylor, an anthropology professor at Harvard University, did know he was capturing a disappearing the way of life.

“Every year you thought might be the last,” he said last week while in Montana for a film screening in Missoula. “Every year it was just getting harder and harder.”

The film opens up in April when the sheep are shorn, then takes viewers through lambing and the sheep drive to pastures more than 10,000 feet above sea level. One aspect of “Sweetgrass” that has garnered praise is the absence of narration, something Castaing-Taylor said was done intentionally to avoid “telling the viewer what to think.”

Last week Castaing-Taylor said the pressures being put on ranching families like the Allestads include local ranchers being “completely neglected and ignored” when wolves were reintroduced into Montana in the mid-1990s.

He also said many Americans don’t understand what it means to truly live with animals.

“City folks have no idea. For city folks, animals are pets, put indoors for seven hours a day and sterilized,” said Castaing-Taylor, who was born in Liverpool and speaks with a British accent. “Throughout history, humans have lived with animals. It’s an unbelievably important part of human history.”

Americans’ habits have changed, making it more difficult to be a sheep rancher in America. Americans eat less lamb and wear less wool.

But Elaine Allestad said it was the predators that finally made ranching in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness untenable. When 60 sheep were killed by wolves and a livestock-reimbursement program only paid for between 13 and 19 of them, the family sold its allotment to the National Wildlife Federation and other groups.

Elaine Allestad called that moment “sad.”

“It was our way of life,” she said. “Lawrence’s way of life. His family’s way of life.”

The NWF said it wanted to end ranching in the mountains because it was prime wolf, grizzly and big horn sheep habitat.

“They’ll never put sheep back out there again,” said Lawrence. “‘Never’ is a strong word.”

The family bought a 36,000-acre ranch on the Canadian border near Opheim. The Allestads’ son runs 200 sheep and about 700 cows on the grassland, where the topography is defined by river breaks and ravines rather than granite and limestone peaks.

“It’s not here,” Lawrence Allestad said of the new ranch. “We don’t have the mountains, the Yellowstone or the Boulder (rivers). We don’t have neighbors.”

DANIEL PERSON. February 22 2010. Bozeman Chronicle.

A Cinema Guild Release | © 2009 All Rights Reserved | sweetgrass@me.com.