NACHES -- His family business is the state's largest of its kind, and his every day can be a gauntlet of federal scrutiny and state wildlife guidelines, permits and land-use restrictions.
But as Nick Martinez navigates his three-quarter-ton Chevy over the rutted twists of a Forest Service road high on the westernmost flanks of Cleman Mountain, today he's simply providing logistical support.
"That," says Martinez with a laugh, "is a creative way of saying I run groceries."
Because his family business is raising and grazing sheep, though, the heavy load in his truck bed doesn't look like your basic grocery run: seven military-style, 5-gallon water drums, a wall of rock salt bags and a seemingly endless supply of dog food in 50-pound bags that, he says, "we buy by the pallet."
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Providing for his Peruvian sheepherder, this "band" of roughly 700 ewes and 1,000 lambs, and the numerous dogs that both protect and herd the sheep, is the easy part of Martinez's job.
Far more difficult are the problems that may lie ahead.
While nearly every other free-range sheep ranching operation in the state closed up shop 20 years ago, the Martinezes have survived nearly nine decades of changes in the marketplace and the political arena. They have done so despite losing vast swaths of grazing land to such federal projects as the Hanford nuclear reservation and the Yakima Training Center.
But now they must distance themselves -- and their domestic sheep, quite literally -- from the wild California bighorn sheep not too far across these Cascade foothills, a complication that didn't exist even two decades ago.
"The last couple of years there's always been something -- fire, restoration work from fire safety, road washouts, bighorns," Martinez, 37, says. "Always something.
"Seems like the rules get changed, and never in your favor. You've got to adapt or you'll be out of business."
Nearly 50 years and still going
In a high-speed world in which innovations are obsolete almost before they hit store shelves, sheep ranchers like the Martinezes are an anachronism.
They have grazed this particular Wenatchee National Forest allotment on a two-year rotation for nearly a half-century, and not much about their operation has changed in all that time.
The herders are still brought in on seasonal worker visas from Europe and South America, their only concession to technology being the John Deere tractor the Martinezes provide each to haul his living-quarters trailer to the next two-night layover site.
The herders may be working on as many as five or six grazing allotments at any one time, still supported by Pyrenees and Anatolian dogs that protect the sheep from such predators as coyotes -- including, as Martinez says, "the two-legged kind."
Upon arriving at the trailer of one of his herders at another allotment, this one far up the Rattlesnake, Martinez finds a large Anatolian shepherd dog protecting an injured lamb.
The dog's soft growl -- even with Martinez, a human it knows well -- is an indication of how seriously it takes the job: Nobody or nothing messes with that lamb. The dog will approach visitors and even allow them to pet his head or scratch his ear, but get too close to the lamb and it's a different story.
Martinez needs to load the lamb onto the truck to take it home for medical attention, but has to be careful with the dog's guardian nature -- and teeth.
"Why are you being so grumpy? You're grumpy today," he says again and again to the dog, his tone both soothing and authoritative. The Anatolian's allegiance seems torn between this human he knows and this lamb he's bound to protect.
When Martinez gets the lamb loaded onto the truck, the dog bounds onto the pickup bed to maintain his vigil. When Martinez shoos him from the truck, the dog takes off cross-country, following the grazing path taken by the rest of the sheep.
Minding the bighorns
But while the day-to-day existence on the herder's route seems mundane, the big-picture is anything but.
In its Nile, Naches and Rattlesnake allotments, as well as other grazing permits in Chelan County, there are bighorns somewhere in the distance. And just how big a distance is necessary seems to be the big question.
"That's what we don't know," Martinez says. "(The separating distance) in the Rattlesnake is just as close as the Nile; it's across the river from the bighorns. And up north they've got the Swakane (bighorn) herd, which is over the hill from our Entiat/Ardenvoir band.
"Who knows how far (the bighorns) are gonna go ... or if they're gonna go."
Domestic sheep carry pathogens that are benign to them but can be fatal in bighorns. Because wildlife scientists believe it can only be passed between the species by "nose-to-nose contact," keeping them apart becomes paramount.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife's numerous bighorn reintroduction efforts in several parts of the state met with varying degrees of success.
Eight California bighorns released in 1962 into the Colockum, northeast of Ellensburg, grew to a herd of more than 100 animals before 1970 but then quickly dwindled. Subsequent transplants in 1980 and 1987 were largely unsuccessful.
Wildlife department documents say there were reports of bighorns mingling with domestic sheep in the area and that disease transmission "is thought to have been involved."
Still, other bighorn reintroductions went well, establishing populations in the Yakima River Canyon, on Cleman Mountain and in the Quilomene area of eastern Kittitas County.
So in 1997, the wildlife department decided to bring bighorns into the Tieton area.
Wenatchee National Forest officials at the time alerted the wildlife department to the presence of three long-standing domestic grazing leases held by the Martinez operation in neighboring areas.
Despite that warning, in its State Environmental Protection Act process, the wildlife department determined the potential danger was "nonsignificant."
Then, two years ago, a handful of bighorns showed up at Rock Creek, somewhere they hadn't been seen in many years, on the very exit route the Martinez sheep were to take.
And that suddenly became very significant.
Protecting their sheep
In the end, nothing happened to the bighorns -- primarily because Nick and his older brother Mark, who manage the daily operation, took evasive measures with their own sheep.
And it cost them about 30 days of forage.
That may not sound like much, but it adds up. The lambs are born in February, weighing perhaps 10 pounds at birth. By now they're up to 90 pounds, "and if they're going good, they're probably gaining a half-pound a day," Nick Martinez says. "With another 60 days of grazing, they might be 120 to 125 pounds by the time they come off the mountain."
If they lose forage, they lose weight. And if you figure $1 lost for every lost pound, 15 lost pounds on each of 1,000 lambs ... that adds up. The Martinez family can pay to fatten the animals up at a feedlot, but again, that's coming out of the bottom line.
The Martinez family's sheep are working their way over the western flanks of Cleman Mountain once again, with the bighorns once again presenting another potential problem to avoid.
Over the long haul, Nick Martinez knows, his family's business may be pushed out of long-standing grazing leases if bighorns begin showing up on a regular basis.
"The big question is, what are (state and federal officials) going to do?" he says. "It's hard to make plans. You don't know how many allotments they're going to take away from you. It's a numbers thing: There aren't that many places you can graze them."
And if they get pushed out of too many of those places? Could the Martinez sheep dynasty, which dates from the 1920s and once spanned from the Columbia River to the Cascade foothills, be brought down by a handful of bighorns where nobody expected them?
Nick Martinez shrugged.
"The jury's still out."