By John M. Glionna
Special to The Ely Times
The mid-April storm descends on the North Spring Valley at dusk, the snow sticking to the ground and to the backs of Hank Vogler’s sheep. It’s the height of harvest season, when the teams of itinerant, Spanish-speaking shearers move in to help the veteran rancher cull another year of wool from his flock of 10,000, and this sudden turn in the weather feels ominous.
The sheep are annoyed at their lot, especially the ones just relieved of their warm coats. They bleat and bawl, huddling in groups to conserve heat. A few older ones have already died of stress, their bodies stiffening in the snow, and a look of concern flashes across the old sheepherder’s face.
The 70-year-old Vogler is behind the wheel of a pay-loader, dropping bales of hay that are distributed by workers, who keep the sheep moving in large circles in the open field. In the fading light, the animals resemble large armies forging across the landscape, as though positioning themselves for the battle ahead. Thousands have already been sheared; more will have their turn come morning. Right now, that seems a long time away.
“The snow is stressing the sheep,” Vogler shouts down from the machine. “You take your clothes off and get a shave in this kind of cold; it’s a bit of a shock. You gotta get their bellies full after shearing, to keep their furnaces going.”
A half-hour later, walking his isolated ranch headquarters an hour north of Ely, he spots the bodies of two older sheep that crawled beneath a trailer to die. Vogler shakes his head, his voice low with emotion. “That one old grandma looked good last year,” he says, “but she had a bad winter and didn’t make it.”
Vogler has herded sheep in central Nevada for 35 years, a stubborn adherent to an industry he knows is in great peril. He’s an aging ambassador to a colorful 140-year old tradition that got its start in Nevada in the 1880s, when immigrant Basque families dominated the scene with their innate know-how and sprawling flocks.
The trade has watched its sheep numbers plummet from one million a century ago to just 75,000 today, the vestiges of a once-thriving industry now propped up by a dozen remaining families, many of them Basque.
Reasons for the decline are numerous: Consumers have moved away from even the finer merino-blend wool toward synthetic-fiber clothing. Herders must also fight off predators such as coyotes and mountain lions, which can thin a flock by 15 percent or more in a year. There are regular droughts and wildfires, as well as bouts of loneliness and depression.
Vogler insists he also deals with two-legged threats — wildlife activists, for example, who claim that even healthy domestic sheep carry strains of a respiratory-tract bacteria that can cause fatal pneumonia in wild Bighorn sheep, whose numbers are also in decline. (Vogler says the connection is exaggerated.) Or Big City water officials who want to drain Nevada’s rural aquifers to build more housing tracts around Las Vegas. There are also the constant tensions of running herds on public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, whose officials don’t always see things his way. Experience has taught him that some have personal agendas, like giving more credence to wildlife activists than they do ranchers. Still others assume he’s just another rich rancher, or a Cliven Bundy wannabe who’ll thumb his nose at any regulation. (BLM officials, of course, say this is all nonsense.)
Sheep stockmen such as Vogler also struggle to hire herders from such South American nations as Peru and Chile, who tend to far-flung bands of sheep for months on end, often going weeks without encountering another human being. Tightening immigration laws mean it’s harder to bring foreign workers into the U.S., and some bolt after arriving, leaving the bill for their visa and flight to the ranchers.
The result: Remaining sheep ranchers say their children want nothing to do with the business, leaving them to fret about its future.
“The commitment is huge,” says Pete Paris, secretary of the Nevada Wool Growers Association. “This business has broken a lot of people who don’t put in the requisite time, sweat, and blood. You almost have to live with these sheep.”
Vogler knows all too well about the round-the-clock commitment necessary to stay afloat. In 2018, he sold 100,000 pounds of wool, at an average of $3 a pound, but feeding sheep is expensive. Ever since he brought his Need More Sheep company here in 1985, the hard-luck business has many times broken his heart and nearly his pocketbook. It also took one of his two sons, who died in a wreck doing ranch chores, making Vogler question much more than just his chosen pursuit.“I question my own mental health every single day,” Vogler says. “Because if you like the same box of cereal for breakfast every morning, well, this job isn’t for you. The phone rings too often in the middle of the night. You’ve got issues with predators like mountain lions and coyotes, or sheepherders losing sheep in difficult country. You’re like a fireman putting out fresh fires every single day, and it’s only crazy persistence that makes everything work.”
For critics and friends alike, Vogler is an often-maddening collection of contradictions, a man of letters in a hands-on trade, a college-educated former ranch buckaroo who quotes Thomas Jefferson and can issue ranch commands in several Spanish dialects (as well as Basque, German, and Mandarin Chinese, if necessary). He has become an often-irascible industry spokesman in magazine articles and newspaper editorials, as a frequent radio talk-show guest, and as the author of a children’s book about raising sheep.
Vogler says he writes for his fellow ranchers, “the people who live at the end of the road or the other side of nowhere” and doesn’t much care what outsiders think. This take-no-prisoners approach applies more broadly, too, whether he’s serving on the board of the Nevada Department of Wildlife or emceeing a celebration of sheepherding. As with many rural folks, his politics lean decidedly to the right, but Vogler doesn’t consider himself to be a run-of-the-mill good-old-boy. “I’ve been known to throw a skunk on the table at a garden party,” he says.
Even within the tightly knit ranching business, Vogler insists on going his own way. With ranchers, he says, there’s often a prevailing groupthink. “And if you don’t advocate that groupthink at all times, you’re in trouble,” he says. “You’re considered an outlaw.” He might occasionally find himself at odds with others over predator control or somebody’s herd spending too much time on a shared high-country trail, gobbling up all the vegetation. But the remaining families know the only way they’re going to survive a diminishing market is to all get along.
Vogler doesn’t even like the term “sheepherder,” preferring to be called a stockman. “You can own 10,000 cows and no one calls you a cowboy, but own one sheep and you’re a sheep man,” he says.
Above his signature mud boots, blue jeans, flannel shirt, and suspenders, his stockman’s face is craggy, his eyebrows pronounced, graying hair slicked to the side. He has big shoulders and a ramrod posture, as if he’s perpetually hung on a coat rack.
If he often scowls around the toothpick in his mouth, the look is lightened by bursts of laughter; his is a deadpan, homespun wit. He likes to riff on country-western song titles, giving them a sheepherder’s spin, such as, “I don’t think my heart could stand another Ewe” or the Willie Nelson-infused, “Ewe were always on my mind.” Just watch, and he’ll imitate the accents of the old Basque sheepherders who taught him the trade, or describe with great relish such ranch chores as rubbing iodine on a ewe’s umbilical cord or pulling out a juvenile sheep’s testicles with his teeth.
And he sizes up critics by saying, “If you added up all the people trying to put me out of business, the list would be longer than a polygamist’s clothesline.”
Recent years have tested Vogler’s resolve. He survived a painful battle with pancreatic cancer, thanks to numerous operations. “Just about every doctor I’ve met tells me the same thing: You’re gonna die,” he says. “I’ve been given last rites so many times, the next time I’m in that position, I’ll be able to administer them myself.”
Vogler’s unlikely joie de vivre despite hardship has endeared him to many in the business. “Hank finds humor in agony,” said C.J. Hadley, the editor of Ranch magazine, which has printed many of Vogler’s stories. “Despite massive setbacks — physical, mental, and financial — he always comes back. He’s tough. He’s bright. He’s raw and real.”
He was born Henry Conrad Vogler IV, or just Hank, the grandson of an Oregon ranching scion, who grew up breaking colts, working on the fence and haying crews. Vogler’s father was a drunk and gambler who discouraged his son from the cowboy way. From an early age, Vogler felt like a black sheep. While most members of his clan were blue-eyed Germans, he took after his Native American grandmother’s roots — a mix of Chickasaw and Cherokee.
“My life was set at age 5,” he recalls. “The only stability I had was sitting at the chow table with my grandfather, the chore boys, and buckaroos. I knew what I wanted to do.” He had mentors such as his Uncle Charlie, a veteran ranch hand with a sense of humor, and Robert Carlson, the old foreman who lost a leg and could still outwork three people.
After his grandfather sold the operation when Vogler was 15, he decided to go to school and learn how to run a ranch for somebody else. He later married his high school sweetheart and, as he likes to say, “my first daughter was 18 days old by the time I turned 18.” The couple eventually had five children.
In 1971, Vogler graduated from UNR with a degree in agriculture, laboring full-time to put himself through school. He worked at a Safeway, milked cows at the university dairy, and punched the clock at a slaughterhouse. In his senior year, he managed a nearby ranch, facing a 100-mile daily commute to classes.
After graduation, Vogler returned to ranch life in Oregon, where, he says, in a card game against an opponent nicknamed Cowboy Bob, he won enough to buy seven sheep. That started it all: He eventually returned to Nevada in the mid-1980s and began taking over grazing permits from people who wanted out of the sheep business. “It’s like buying a straw hat in the middle of winter — when other people get out, I get in,” he explains. “Maybe it’s my contrary nature. A lot of people in my family had a competition to see who could stay the drunkest. I went down another path.”
In 1985, Vogler met a rancher who was behind with the bank and ventured out to the North Spring Valley to assess his operation. “When I dropped over that mountain, the hair on the back of my neck stood right up,” he recalls. The feeling was neither good nor bad, maybe just a hunch — a sense of opportunity, or the dread of sensing all the work that lay ahead. He recalled seeing an old pink house, now gone, that was “a rat-infested piece of nothing. I had the heebie-jeebies from the moment I rolled into this yard.”
He took over the rancher’s cattle and sheep permits to graze on public land and worked hard to pay off the six-figure debt in five years. He ran cattle for neighbors, refurbished barns, bought and sold an investment property in Ely.
He soon focused on running sheep. Nowadays, his two dozen herders and their dogs make sure the bands keep moving and don’t overgraze areas across allotments that can be hundreds of miles away. Sheep also have a more varied diet than cattle, Vogler says, consuming weeds and leaves while cows eat only grass. Nevada’s dry climate and cold winters, and the fact that the herds graze on the open range, he adds, produces a cleaner, better-quality, higher-yielding wool product.
He’s up each day at 4 a.m., driving the landscape in his white Ford pickup truck.
“All I’ve got is these animals,” he says, “and I’ll do whatever I have to do to protect them.” No kidding: On the living room of his ranch house sits the stuffed remains of a mountain lion he caught ravaging his lambs.
“Sheep are a needy little animal. They need tending. But I dunno. I like ’em,” he says. “Some nights, when you’re so tired you could fall asleep in a second, but too sore to move, you see those little lambs bucking and running around while their mothers are bleating, calling out as if to say, ‘God-dammit, come on home; we’re about to have supper. And to see those babies finally go back, all calling in unison for their moms, well, it’s like a beautiful rural symphony.”
Not long after taking over the North Spring Valley operation, Vogler’s 17-year-old son, H.C., was killed after he hit a patch of ice and flipped his truck. Among other effects, the resulting trauma ended his marriage.
“The only way I was going to survive was to stay busy. I thought about it day and night, trying to put it in perspective,” he recalls. “My only reprieve was to hit the pillow at night and go to sleep. It took me six or seven years, and I’m still not really over it.”
Not long afterward, Vogler was at a meeting where sheep ranchers were reviewing a new marketing campaign. He didn’t like it, and told people so, saying, “You might as well be selling woman’s brassieres. That’s not our industry.”
That’s when somebody spoke up: “If you know so much, why don’t you write it.”
So Vogler did. He wrote a children’s book he called The Story of Rangelands, channeling his late son and his love of the land. “My son had just died,” he recalls. “I cried while writing much of that book.”
In 2013, he literally ran into a woman in a grocery store in Elko, knocking her egg carton to the floor. He paid for the eggs and the rest of her groceries, and later jump-started her stalled car. He married China-born Wei Chen not long afterward.
That year, following his health scare, Vogler began several upgrades on his ranch, building a new shop and bunkhouse. He also constructed a new house that sits on a bluff over his operation, with views of the valley and mountains beyond.
“When doctors told me I was going to take a dirt nap, I decided to upgrade so the next rancher’s wife would be more inclined to buy the place,” he explains. “But much to the chagrin of my detractors, I’m still here. … Either it’s the love of the job or just plain stupidity.”
Sometime in the late 1970s, he was out on the Oregon range, in a place with the name Whorehouse Meadows, when he spotted some words carved into a tree. It was a poem, dated 1930, and signed “Val Johnson 1934.” He memorized it:
“You talk about your lamb chops and the woolen clothes you wear/But never a word or never a care for the man who put ’em there.
“I’ve summered in the tropics, had the yellow fever chill/I’ve wintered in the arctic, known every ache and ill.
“Been shanghaied on a whaler, and stranded in the deep/But I didn’t know what misery was until I started herding sheep.”
It’s the morning after the storm, and the shearers have waited until the sun has burned the last of the snow from the sheep’s backs. The animals bawl as they’re prodded from their pens, through a single-lane chute, and into the shearing shack. Inside, the workers lay the surprisingly docile animals onto their sides and back and, with a quick precision, cut away their woolen coats.
Once sheared, the sheep exit through a swinging door, jumping for freedom like inmates leaving the penitentiary. After being checked for contamination, the fleece is separated by the quality of the wool and pressed into 500-pound bales that are loaded onto semis.
Vogler walks the yard, speaking in serviceable Spanish to the men, who mostly understand his directions, occasionally glancing at one another for confirmation. The grounds are littered with small trailers that house the shearers as well as Vogler’s sheepherders, who have come in from the surrounding countryside, along with their dogs. The grounds are abuzz with calling animals and chattering men.
In one large pen awaiting their turn are the pregnant ewes, whom Vogler refers to as “blushing brides,” skittish because they’ve already been through the shearing ordeal. Next door are the yearlings that will get pregnant this year, a band the sheepherder calls his “ladies in waiting,” new to the shear.
“For them, it’s like going to a party,” Vogler says. “‘Hey, there’s my Mom and Aunt Betty. Let’s go!’ Once shorn, they’ll know. They’ll take two steps back.”
His children, all college-educated, work such jobs as computer technician, probation officer, heavy-equipment operator, archeologist, and Marine Corps officer. None want to take the reins of their father’s lifelong investment.
“I always ask myself, ‘Can I continue to do this?’ I worry about the future,” Vogler says. “I guess my kids all made the right decision by getting the hell out of here. Still, they were good buckaroos, all of ’em.”
Having someone assume the reins of the business he built is just one worry. There are fewer sheep and fewer resources — fewer shearers to harvest the fleece, fewer dedicated trucks to haul it to market.
“I worry all the time about the future of sheepherding in Nevada,” he says. “My son has one more year in the Marines, maybe he’ll come back, maybe he won’t. Maybe it’ll skip a generation, and it’ll be the grandkids who take over. I’m not the only one worrying about this. We all do.”
He looks off toward another set of storm clouds.
“In the end, when the bank finally comes for this place, I just want ’em to say that old Hank Vogler sure took care of it for them.”