The spring lamb crop of Navajo-Churro sheep at Utah State University numbers about 170 so far, and Lyle McNeal says he loves every single one.
McNeal, a professor of animal science at Utah State, has been working for 12 years to preserve and increase the Navajo-Churro breed, helping to bring the animals back from the brink of extinction and to re-establish them on the Navajo Reservation.The Churro is the oldest North American sheep breed, brought to the New World by Coronado in 1540, McNeal said. They were used for four centuries by Hispanics and Indians, but in 1972 the total U.S. population of Churros was 500 or fewer.
The Churros are dear to the hearts of the Navajos, McNeal said. They are genetically resistant to foot-rot disease and to intestinal parasites. They are well adapted to the climate of the desert Southwest and have a double coat that provides excellent non-greasy coarse wool for weaving, especially for hand spinning.
Conveniently, they also do well in the severe cold temperatures of Logan where McNeal has established a flock.
"A series of circumstances led to their disappearance from the Navajo reservation," he said. For one thing, the sheep are "non-meaty" - that is, they are long-legged, fine-boned and narrow-bodied - handsome animals, actually - unlike the squatty "improved" sheep. White men considered them inferior wool producers. Many were eliminated from the reservation during the 1930s.
Among its other benefits, McNeal sees the USU Navajo Sheep Project as one way to make amends for the historical mistreatment of the Indians.
"A third of the Indians in the United States are Navajos," he said. "They're the only ones who raise sheep and use the wool for weaving.
"Many of the old Navajo ladies shed tears when they see these sheep in our truck," he said.
McNeal's work was highlighted in a recent Newsweek article on preserving breeds of domestic animals.
McNeal began his project to preserve the breed in 1977 at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. His stock then consisted of six ewes and a couple of rams. Today, McNeal has 125 breeding ewes.
The project moved with him to USU in 1979, and has been supported for the last decade by a number of private grants and gifts.
McNeal was also behind the 1986 establishment of a genetic registry for the Navajo-Churro, to monitor crosses and ensure true breeding.
"Barry Goldwater is a supporter of the project," McNeal said. "Robert Redford is raising the sheep in Santa Fe. There are sheep in the Phoenix Zoo and at the zoo in Wichita. The Los Angeles Zoo got them a month ago, and the national zoo in Washington, D.C., wants a pair."
Because the sheep project focuses on preservation more than research, it has not been supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, he said. "The federal government is not concerned with saving farm animals," he said. "We've started something that hasn't been done."
McNeal believes re-establishment of the Churro can help foster self-sufficiency and alleviate the high unemployment rate on the reservation.
"We want to help them develop their economy based on renewable natural resources, development that won't harm the environment," he said. "We can use 20th and 21st century technology without throwing out the old things that work."