Peruvian shepherd Maximo Velasco raised his rifle and fired three shots into the thick billows of fog that gathered above Chatsworth in the predawn hours, as the cars below started trickling onto the Simi Valley Freeway.
While the biggest worry for most San Fernando Valley residents was the possibility of traffic congestion, Velasco was concerned with scaring off coyotes that might threaten his 580-head flock.
"With the mist, you can't see the coyote," said Velasco, who has tended the same herd on Porter Ranch since coming to the United States from Peru three years ago. "They sneak up from behind . . . and carry sheep away. You don't know about it until you find the skeletons and rotting bones days later."
Velasco, 29, is among the last holdouts in a fading tradition of sheepherding in the Santa Susana Mountains, where the 16,000-acre Porter Ranch is believed to be the only area within the City of Los Angeles still used for commercial sheep grazing.
For Velasco, the 18-hour-a-day job--which earns him $650 a month--means not only financial comfort when he returns to Peru, but coping with loneliness, isolation, homesickness and myriad other factors that have forced others out of the business.
"In the beginning my body was here, but my heart was in Peru," Velasco said one recent morning. "Now I'm accustomed to it." With only a radio and two sheep dogs named Negro and Pouchie to keep him company, he lives in a one-room trailer provided by his employer, Calabasas rancher Luigi Viso.
Nevertheless, he views the job as a precious opportunity because it offers good pay, few expenses and the peacefulness of the countryside as well as the bustle of the nearby city.
"Here I'm close to the cars and houses," Velasco said. "I've known people who had to go to the desert. In six months, they didn't see a person. That'll drive you crazy."
In Los Angeles, however, the days of sheepherding are numbered, animal experts and sheep producers say. Increasing urbanization and the spread of housing developments have decreased the amount of available land and introduced or exacerbated a host of related problems, pushing the sheep industry farther from the city.
"It's like agriculture in this area," said John Santos, district inspector for the Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner's office. "All things are against it--high cost of water, energy to get the water out to the fields. They're losing more and more land to development. All these things work against the industry."
Most of the sheep production in Los Angeles County is now limited to Antelope Valley, and on Porter Ranch, thousands of homes are slated for construction over the next 20 years.
Building has already taken place on the eastern fringe of the ranch, pushing the herd farther west. "Two years ago there weren't any houses," Velasco said. "The sheep could eat as far as you could see. Pretty soon there won't be anything left for them."
Already, evidence of urban life is inescapable for Velasco. The roofs of Monteria Estates, which offer some of the valley's most luxurious housing, rise to the south. To the west and north, a band of smog shrouds portions of the ragged, red mountain peaks. To the east, more housing perches on hilltops.
Burned carcasses of automobiles and abandoned appliances lie in gullies--sober testaments to the dumping and reckless joy riding that Velasco said he witnesses on weekends. And no matter how far back he climbs into the dusty foothills of the Santa Susanas, the sound of traffic on the freeway below rises like a river running high after spring rains.
Porter Ranch's accessibility to roads, proximity to water and wealth of vegetation make it attractive to sheepherders, said Lt. Linda Gordon, an officer with the Los Angeles Department of Animal Regulation.
"It's the same quality of grass as you'd find in a more remote area," Gordon said. "To my knowledge, it's the only area in the city limits that attracts sheep grazing."
Velasco has company from January to May, when three or four other shepherds graze their sheep at Porter Ranch. The Peruvian, however, is the only one to stay late in the year, and the other shepherds usually transport their animals north long before the hot summer months.
How late the other flocks stay depends on the amount of rainfall, said Glenn Leavitt, a construction superintendent for Porter Ranch Development Co. Most flocks, however, graze there only during the spring months, when the vegetation is most lush, and then move on to fields of alfalfa or stubble--the remains of a harvest--in Northern California.
Sheep producers typically pay between 5 and 15 cents a head per season to graze their animals at other locations, Leavitt said, but the Porter Ranch Development Co. doesn't charge shepherds or herd owners.
"They're actually doing us a favor," he said. "With the sheep, they keep the grass growth down, and that reduces the fire hazard."