Sweetgrass – An Ode to the Modern American West

“I am the last guy to do this and someone ought to make a film about it.” – rancher Lawrence Allested in 2001, about the fact that he was the last person to drive his sheep up into Montana’s Absaroka‐Beartooth mountain range on a grazing permit that had been handed down in his Norwegian‐American family for generations.

POV: Sweetgrass
7/17/2011 10:30 pm WOSU TV
7/22/2011 1:00 am WOSU TV

The filmmakers behind Sweetgrass thought they had a story, and so they set out in the summer of 2001.

From the film’s press kit: (PDF)

Our cars were loaded to the brim with three camera rigs, a bunch of radio microphones, our two kids, a dog and a babysitter. For the first few weeks we’d wake up at 4 a.m. to help drive the sheep through town and then up the roads towards the hills. It soon became clear, however, that because of the growing grizzly bear and grey wolf population, taking the kids up into the mountains would be impossible.

When Lucien got down from the mountains that fall, he was unrecognizable – bearded beyond belief, 20 lbs lighter, carrying a ton of footage, and limping. He would later be diagnosed with trauma‐induced advanced degenerative arthritis, caused by carrying the equipment day and night, and need double foot surgery.

What emerged, eight years later, is an unsentimental elegy to the American West. Sweetgrass follows the last modern-day cowboys to lead their flocks of sheep up into Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture- 150 miles round trip, if you’re keeping score.

A bit of backstory from the filmmakers:

  • Katy Ratliff

    As someone who has a small sheep flock in Ohio, I really enjoyed this! It was like a trip to a shepherding paradise. The scenery was incredible, and the size of the flock was amazing, but the sheep handling techniques were surprisingly familar. The work of the guard dogs and Border Collies in the movie is actually similar to ours, just on a vastly different scale. I really laughed when the young man on the cell phone complained that the barking dogs kept him up at night, because that’s true here, too, it’s just that my guard dog barks at coyotes instead of grizzly bears.