Sweetgrass: The Last Ride of the American Cowboy

Filmed in the Absaroka Beartooth Mountains, Premiers This Month at Helena’s Myrna Loy Center

The filmmakers' motivation couldn't be clearer: They needed to capture a way of life that may soon exist only on film and in memory.
—New York Daily News

The critically acclaimed and award-winning Montana-made film, Sweetgrass: The Last Ride of the American Cowboy, which chronicles the last sheep drive of Big Timber ranchers Lawrence and Elaine Allestad, is coming to the Myrna Loy Center in Helena, June 4-10.

A film by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Sweetgrass is an unsentimental elegy to the American West, as it follows the last modern day cowboys to lead their flocks of sheep up into the Absaroka Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. This astonishingly beautiful yet unsparing film reveals a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans, vulnerability and violence are all intimately meshed.
Sweetgrass premiered at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival. It has since played at the New York Film Festival, the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, and AFI Festival, among others.
“Spending summers high in the Rocky Mountains, among the herders, the sheep, and their predators [wolves], was a transcendent experience that will stay with me for the rest of my days,” said filmmaker Lucien Castaing Taylor.
George Edwards, coordinator of the Montana’s Livestock Loss Reduction and Mitigation Program, helped bring the film to the state's capital to show the realities of sheep ranching, an industry on the decline in Montana since the 1940s.

"It's a great movie, although it's a little sobering at times," Edwards said. "It shows how difficult sheep ranching can be and the kinds of pressures that have been causing ranchers to give up and get out of the business. It's a movie about a way of life that's sadly coming to an end."

One factor sheep ranchers have had to deal with the past few years is depredation by wolves  reintroduced into Wyoming, Montana and Idaho in 1995. Wolves had been absent from Montana's landscape for nearly 80 years prior to reintroduction, and sheep losses to wolf depredation have since increased from none in 1995 to 256 in 2009.
But Edwards was quick to point out that the movie isn't about wolves.

"The movie isn't about wolves or the impact they have on livestock producers, it's about sheep ranchers," Edwards said. "Wolves are just another factor for sheep ranchers to contend with, but it's a factor that can push affected producers over the edge of economic viability."

Sheep numbers in Montana detail just how difficult economic viability has been. There were more than 4 million sheep in Montana between 1941 and 1943, but that number plunged by 60 percent to 1.7 million in 1951. The steady decline continued until 1973, when the number of sheep in Montana dropped below one million head for the first time since 1884. Today, there are just 255,000 sheep in Big Sky country, the lowest number since 1878.

Allestad serves as chairperson of the Livestock Loss Reduction & Mitigation Program that was created by the state legislature in 2007 to compensate ranchers for wolf kills and fund mitigation projects to reduce conflicts between wolves and livestock. Creation of the program was required as a component of the state's gray wolf management plan.
Much like the sheep ranchers portrayed in the film, the program shares a problem common to livestock producers in the Big Sky and throughout the country: Too much work and not enough resources.

"As wolves expand their range and numbers, it's reasonable to expect an increase in wolf depredations," said Allestad, a member of the original Wolf Advisory Council who has also served as a Fish, Wildlife & Parks commissioner and as a Sweetgrass county commissioner. "We've had a difficult time keeping up with claims."

Edwards said the fundamental goal of bringing the movie to Helena is awareness.

"I hope the film raises awareness of the livestock industry, the difficulties producers face, and how wolves fit into that picture," he said. "We also hope it helps raise awareness of the program. We want people to know who we are, what we do, and the role the board and program can play in bridging the gap between wolf advocates and people who are losing money, and potentially their way of life, because of wolves."
Allestad and other members of the program's board will attend the opening night of the movie, which will feature a Q&A session both before and after the movie. Edwards will also have informational material about the board and program.

"It will be a good opportunity for folks interested in wolves or the relationship between wolves and livestock to ask questions and learn about the board's role in wolf management," Edwards said. "Plus, it's an opportunity to see a great movie.

Sweetgrass premiers at the Myrna Loy Center on June 4 and runs through June 10, with show times at 7 and 9 p.m. (call to confirm). Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (406) 443-0287.

Excerpts from Reviews:
Call me old-fashioned, but I find the spectacle...more impressive than all the vistas of Avatar's Pandora.
Peter Keough, Boston Phoenix

Breathtaking... close to heaven...
Melissa Anderson, Village Voice

Extraordinary…alternately idyllic and severe…Sweetgrass defies the conventions of what most of us regard as a documentary film.
Ted Fry, Seattle Times
Montana Dept. of Livestock

 

 

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