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Can Triple M Bar's flock create a Colorado lamb comeback?

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The diet gives Triple M lamb a unique taste. "People always refer to lamb being gamey," says Elise Wiggins. "I love lamb, personally, and I love the gaminess of it. But this one, it's hard to describe. It has more of a floral note to the meat — because of the melons — than does, say, the lamb that feeds on grass up on the Western Slope."

And her customers notice the difference, adds Wiggins: "I find that whenever I cook their lamb, in particular, people always say, 'I hate lamb, but this is delicious.' They say that every single time."

Before they became sheep ranchers, the Millers were working for the United States Department of Agriculture, focusing on natural-resources conservation across much of southeastern Colorado. They became familiar with the lamb producers and wool growers of the region, and when they were looking for additional adventure, they decided to give ranching a try. "I liked what I saw," David recalls. "I liked the people who were participating. I liked the philosophy, the grittiness...and I understood that there would be hardships, and there would be challenges every day."

"That's why we bought the ranch, for retirement," Mary says. "Neither one of us is one to not have something to do."

So they kept their day jobs and started small at the Triple M Bar. They tried raising cattle, "but sheep seemed to work well for us," David says. Their first flock was blackface Suffolk sheep; then they purchased a few Warhill sheep, a breed known for its multiple births and caring instincts. Many of the ewes now grazing on the ranch are descendants of these Warhills.

Sheep are not the only animals raised on the Triple M Bar. Because mountain lions lurk just across the river and coyotes are a constant threat, soon after they bought the ranch, David started breeding dogs to guard the sheep. And not just any dogs. These are the proud Great Pyrenees: giant fluffy mounds of canine with a deep, clear bark. The puppies learn how to protect their flock almost from birth. "They have a natural guarding instinct; they grow up with the older dogs and learn from them," says David.

They are not house pets. "They are not played with," Mary points out. "It's a natural instinct; there's nothing that we do to train them." In the presence of their owners, the dogs are docile. But as the Millers show visitors around the ranch, the dogs follow in a tight formation, watching for any sudden threats.

The dogs are in almost as much demand as the Triple M lamb; Great Pyrenees pups have been sold to ranchers all over surrounding states. "They've gone to guard everything from chickens and geese to cattle and horses," Mary says.

One of the Pyrenees, Emma, recently gave birth to a litter of eight puppies — two of which are already spoken for. "Once they're old enough, Emma will start taking them out amongst the pen," Mary explains. "She'll take them out into the pen and introduce them to the sheep. And as the puppies get confident and more independent, they'll go out and be independent with the mamas and babies."

And once they reach maturity, they're guard dogs for life. "They will guard the flock to the death," she says. "Unfortunately, we've lost some when they were younger. They will chase predators.... If something is threatening their sheep, they pay attention to nothing else."

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Lamb conquered America before the Spanish ever did. According to Jeffrey Pilcher's 2012 treatise on the history of Mexican food, Planet Taco, sheep and cattle brought from Europe by Spanish conquistadores were set free to forage, trampling all over the country ahead of the Spanish armies. As the ani mals feasted on native crops, the natives fought bitterly against these incursions on their land. "By the end of the colonial era," Pilcher writes, "the battle had reached a stalemate, both geographic and social, that left a strong regional impact on the cuisines of New Spain."

Before the Spanish arrived and their livestock became dominant, the indigenous people living in what would become Colorado had only two domesticated animals for food: turkeys and small, hairless dogs. But cattle and sheep spread quickly. Much like cattle ranching, explains local historian Tom Noel, sheep ranching "starts with Spanish-speaking people bringing sheep up from New Mexico and the Rio Grande."

The Trujillo Homesteads in the San Luis Valley, which were recently designated a National Historic Landmark, are preserved as a microcosm of this period. Teofilo Trujillo built an adobe-style home in what is now Alamosa County in the mid-to-late 1860s and became one of the area's largest sheepherders. This earned him the ire of the mostly white cattlemen, who resented ravenous sheep over-grazing the grasslands and making them unsuitable for cattle.

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Chris Utterback
Contact: Chris Utterback