In March 2009, Alfredo Conovilca-Matamoros left his native Peru for a promising job as a sheepherder in western Colorado. Peru has an established sheep industry, and his new employer, like many American ranchers, was seeking workers with the esoteric know-how so crucial to herding and caring for sheep.

Conovilca-Matamoros came to the United States expecting to work hard and earn his keep. Unfortunately, he soon found that his arrangement wasn’t what he’d anticipated: Upon arrival, his employer confiscated his identification papers and told him that he wouldn’t need them because he wasn’t going anywhere. Conovilca-Matamoros was assigned nonsheepherding tasks such as cutting and baling hay, a violation of his employment visa. And even though these visas also stipulate that sheepherders be given ample food, he says he was constantly underfed.

Working remotely with no access to transportation and speaking little English, he felt trapped. “I knew it was going to be rough, but they never told me that they weren’t going to give me enough food, that they weren’t going to pay me, that they weren’t going to give me access to a phone, to a doctor,” Conovilca-Matamoros said last summer through an interpreter. “They never told me they were going to treat me like an animal.”

Drive around Routt National Forest and the Western Slope, and you may see more men like Conovilca-Matamoros. They tend to the sheep that will eventually be sent to a feedlot in northern Colorado, on to a slaughterhouse, and ultimately to restaurants around the country. According to the American Lamb Board, Colorado ranks third nationwide in the production of sheep and is the largest sheep-feeding state. Restaurants throughout the country have added Colorado lamb to their menus because of its reputation for quality, and Colorado restaurants specifically like it because the meat is seen as supportive of local industry. “The Denver food scene is growing up, and lamb is part of that,” says Tim Kuklinski of Larimer Square’s Rioja restaurant. “Colorado lamb is some of the best in the world.”

Most sheepherders are from Latin America, primarily Peru, Mexico, Bolivia, and Chile. Some of these men are known to pay a recruiter more than $5,000 to secure such jobs—more than double a year’s salary on Peru’s minimum wage. Immigrant sheepherders are permitted to seek employment here thanks to H-2A guest worker visas, which allow American companies to hire foreign workers for jobs they can’t fill with U.S. citizens. These workers earn only a modest income, but it’s still enough to send money home to their families.

“People in this country don’t want to do that kind of work,” says Ernie Etchart, a rancher near Montrose who employs four Peruvian sheepherders. “Whether it’s herding sheep or working with cattle on a ranch or on a farm, it’s very difficult to find people who want to do that. So this is a good option for us, and it provides them with an opportunity, too.”

The H-2A program is widely used to employ workers in the agricultural industry, and the ranching sector is exempt from some of the standard H-2A rules. The typical agricultural guest worker contract, for instance, lasts six to 10 months; sheepherder visas can be extended for up to three years. And while most H-2A workers are entitled to minimum wage, ranchers can pay their workers a pre-established salary for an unlimited amount of work. For Colorado sheepherders, that means $750 per month while being on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

These workers and their advocates say the laws are outdated, inadequate, and poorly enforced. Colorado Legal Services (CLS) in Denver has documented instances of workers who have endured substandard heat or food supplies or faced verbal or even physical abuse, although the latter is rare. Law enforcement officials have intervened in some of the more egregious cases, but their reach can be limited. “All we can do is follow what’s already in the regulations,” says Olga Ruiz, state monitor advocate for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE), which tracks sheepherders’ welfare. “Until that changes, whether we feel it should be better is irrelevant. We have to go by what the law states.”

About a week after he arrived in the United States, Conovilca-Matamoros says his employer took his passport, visa, and I-94 card, which confirmed his legal nonimmigrant status—all the proof that he was here lawfully. And he quickly discovered that his hunger would persist because, working primarily in remote areas, he had no way to buy food for himself. In his home country, Conovilca-Matamoros was accustomed to having the basic nutritional necessities, “but here I didn’t even have that,” he says.

Sheepherders are instructed to contact the Western Range Association (WRA) if they have problems, and they’re allowed to request a transfer to another ranch if they’re unhappy. According to a lawsuit he later filed against his employer, Conovilca-Matamoros called the WRA, which facilitates the visa process for member ranches, to complain that he wasn’t getting enough food. His case file shows that soon after
he placed that call, his employer yelled at him for calling the WRA first instead of coming directly to him. The rancher moved Conovilca-Matamoros away from other workers and eventually into the mountains to work alone.

Like many sheepherders, Conovilca-Matamoros lived in a campito, which is similar to a horse trailer. These measure about five by 10 feet and often have no electricity or running water. (Some campitos reportedly are equipped with solar panels that can supply power for charging small electronics.) With no insulation or refrigeration, they can be hot and stuffy in the summer sun, and in the winter they’re so frigid the herders’ drinking water freezes. According to the legal case file, Conovilca-Matamoros’ campito had holes in the ceiling and walls that let howling winds buffet through it and rainwater drip onto his bedding.

By law, sheepherder camps get inspections every three years, and the CDLE oversees the process. In the interim, employers are supposed to self-certify a camp’s conditions. When official inspections are conducted, it’s rarely without an employer’s previous knowledge, and the inspectors don’t usually visit the more distant sites. “We don’t see them when they’re in remote areas because mainly we just don’t know where those camps are,” Ruiz says. “More than likely, when we see them they’re in passable condition because they know the inspection’s going to be done. It’s up to the employer to fix things as they become inoperable.”

Whether a campito passes inspection is only part of the picture. “Some conditions cannot be remedied by the U.S. Department of Labor because they are not violations of the federal program,” says Jennifer Lee, a CLS attorney. Ruiz agrees that the problem lies with the laws as they’re currently written. “The employers can do more to make these employees comfortable,” she says, by using solar-powered or motor home–style trailers.

Last summer in Routt National Forest, one sheepherder told me that it’s considered a privilege to stay on a ranch. Sheepherders who aren’t already friends with the other workers, or who somehow run afoul of their employers, may get banished to the mountains to herd alone. Working outdoors in one of the most beautiful environments on the planet may seem idyllic, but advocates say the isolation takes a toll. While these men may be used to the hard work and basic lifestyle of a sheepherder, they’re unaccustomed to how far they’ll be from any social interaction. (In Central and South America, sheep operations tend to be nearer to each other or to villages.) “At home they herd sheep in a different manner, there’s no doubt,” the rancher Etchart says. “But these areas are larger and not as populated as maybe they are at home.”

Allen, a sheepherder I met in Routt who declined to give his last name, says he works an average of 112 hours per week. He’s allowed two weeks off per year, but in his two years in Colorado, he says he hasn’t taken a break because he needs the extra income. I interviewed Allen with Tom Acker, a Spanish professor at Colorado Mesa University, and Ignacio Alvarado, a former sheepherder. When Allen hesitated on an answer, Alvarado told him, “I know what this life is like. I know what it’s like to be alone. I know what it’s like to be wandering around in the rain.”

While the sheep and lamb business booms, activists are doing what they can to improve sheepherders’ plight. John Peroulis and Sons Sheep Inc., a ranch that has faced several lawsuits and complaints of worker abuse as far back as 1990, is currently being sued by a group of former herders. CLS attorney Lee also has filed complaints to the CDLE on behalf of several sheepherders. According to Lee, the employer, which she confirmed is not Peroulis and Sons, withheld personal documents, did not provide legally required regular pay statements, and routinely intimidated them with verbal abuse and threats of deportation.

While not all ranchers are guilty of these offenses, industry officials are aware that the rights of immigrant sheepherders must be addressed and improved. “We’ve always said that there are isolated cases where there’s been abuse and something bad has happened,” says Bonnie Brown, spokeswoman for the Colorado Sheep and Wool Authority. “And you know what? That happens in any industry. And nobody wants to see that.”

Conovilca-Matamoros still lives in Colorado and now works in an orchard. He received his teaching license in Peru, and he’s looking for a way to teach Spanish in Colorado. He still doesn’t understand how U.S. laws allow people to live in conditions like sheepherders endure. “Americans have always complained about illegal immigrants,” he says in Spanish. “But when we come with a legal permit to work, we receive this ill treatment.”