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Cattle drive, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Cattle drive, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Greater Yellowstone's Western Heritage


Rahcher J.P Robinson pondering options
Rahcher J.P Robinson pondering options

The cowboy is one of America's most cherished and mythical figures. He symbolizes the mystique of the American west, a caricature of frontier courage, independence, and rugged masculinity. The GYE is cowboy country, it has been ever since the first cattle drive from Texas when Nelson Story purchased over a 1,000 head of longhorns 1866 in 1866 and hired 27 drovers and bullwhackers to drive the herd to Montana. In 1877, northern Wyoming and eastern, and central Montana were opened to stock growing. It was discovered that cattle fattened quickly on the grasslands of the Northern Plains. In 1883, it was estimated that 260,000 head were driven north; many of these went to the GYE.

William Owens who started as a cowboy in 1875 when he was orphaned at age twelve, described a drive from Texas to Montana: "The first and only real drive I made was with Turk Beall. We drove the herd from Texas to the section where Butte Montana is now located. We started with 1,200 head and had the usual sore foot trouble with critters that had to be dropped, had occasional stampedes that caused more or less loss, but with the usual percentage of losses deducted, we still arrived with a herd of 2,400 critters. Our orders were to pick up two strays for every one we lost in a stampede and put the iron on the animals. We traveled through cattle country, more or less, the whole distance and strays kept getting into our herd. Us waddies (wranglers) were paid a dollar as a bonus for each critter that we hold which strayed into the herd. When the weather was pretty an everything going fair, so that a couple waddies could take a little run off to look over the surrounding country, we would do so. While looking over the country, if by chance, we run onto good looking critters, which appeared lonesome and looking for company, we would give these critters an invitation to join our herd and show the animals which way to go. There was a bunch of 14 waddies on the drive and when the settlement was made at the finish of the trip we divided $1,500 of bonus money.”

Hammer Idaho Cowgirl Lydia Moss

Once cowboy poet and humorist Baxter Black was asked: What made you decide to become a cowboy? He replied: You either are one, or you aren't, you never have to decide.

One day in 1988 I was having coffee at the Wort Cafe in Jackson Hole Wyoming when a lady from back east asked me whether I was a real cowboy, embarrassed I replied; if owning a few horses, a hat and living on a ranch made me a cowboy I guess I am.  The truth was different, I rented a house on a ranch and my possession of a few horses and a hat didn’t make me a cowboy. Living on that ranch taught me that.

As a wrangler on a dude ranch I blended in all right and probing tourists were surprised to find out otherwise, but real cowboys could tell right off that I was new to the culture. It wasn’t because I didn’t know the secret handshake, it is because elementally you don’t just become a cowboy as you can become a lawyer or a doctor; it helps to be born into it.

Ranch life is hard, and it builds tough resolute characters, “can do” people whose day starts early and ends late, it can be dusty, mucky, stinky, wet, cold, hot, and often is dangerous. Some think that cowboying is sitting on a horse and following a bunch of cows around, but it is much more than that. Building fence, growing hay, horse trainer, doctoring cows, irrigating and carpenter all falls into the job description of cowboy. A guy doesn’t just show up in a western town wearing a hat and automatically become a cowboy.

Etna Wyoming Cowgirl Cydnie Clark bringing the cows off the range

Rodeo is alive and well in the GYE, many communities hold rodeos regularly and in the case of Jackson, biweekly and in Cody Wyoming –daily. Rodeo has evolved from an industry that requires unique demonstrable skills from the daily routine, and tasks performed by ranch hands that then wish to match skills to their neighbors and now across the world. If it were any other kind of job, leisure hours might have produced another kind of ball game rather than a recreation involving the very animals one had already spent long hours tending. But being a cowboy has always been more of a way of life than a job or an opportunity to get rich.Riding broncs was part of the job for most cowboys during the course of the year as many horses were green broke at best and all needed further training. The roping contest is an extension of the necessary skills developed by ranch cowboys to hold cattle for doctoring, etc. Bull riding has become rodeo's most popular contest. It is not related to any ranch task, but the challenge has called to cowboys from the west’s earliest days. It is not unusual for a bucking horse to be kicking up its heels in fine fashion over the age of 25 years old and many bulls are still active buckers at fifteen years of age. Veterinarians attribute it to the good care they receive which includes quality feed and adequate exercise. Considering the goal of an eight-second ride, the average bucking horse, or bull works less than five minutes per year in the arena.

The face of the west is changing, what was once a frontier populated with hard scrabble farmers, loggers, miners, cowboys, and ranchers is getting gentrified by newcomers from the cities that have a new plan for their adopted home.

The littlest horse shoer, Swan Valley Idaho cowgirl Jaki Johnson
The littlest horse shoer, Swan Valley Idaho cowgirl Jaki Johnson

Recently, the media has glamorized the West for many other things besides the western culture. Our mountains and valleys have left indelible impressions on our minds from movies since the days of John Ford, but the last couple of decades magazines like Outside, Skiing, Backpacker, Fly-fisherman, and Men’s Journal has romanticized western living for many of its other offerings and has fueled an influx of newcomers who often find fault with the cowboy culture they find there.  When a backpacker is twelve miles out into the wilderness, he doesn’t want to see a tenth generation bovine grazing in a beautiful mountain meadow. When a fly fisherman is putting the sneak on a spooky spring creek cutthroat, he doesn’t want to be joined by a thirsty Bessie and her new calf. The mountain biker rarely has a pleasant encounter with a horseman on a narrow trail. The triathlete on the make at the dance hall doesn’t like loosing the girl to the quiet hick at the bar with the large brimmed hat.

Many of these folks are trying to end public grazing on our rangelands. When public grazing ends and ranchers no longer have a place to graze their cows during the hay farming season the cowboy, as we know him will fade away also. Restricted to the confines of a bankrupt fenced in ranch and barred from the wide-open spaces, it will sadly spell the demise for this living icon of Americana.

Reynolds girls driving cows, cowgirls from Freedom Wyoming
Reynolds girls driving cows, cowgirls from Freedom Wyoming

Cattle grazing on our public lands has not always been an issue. Until recently cattle, grazing was a natural part of the culture of the West. Cowboys, Indians, tumbleweeds and cows were the first thing to come to mind when thinking of the west. For the last couple of decades this perception has been muddied, a battle has been raging between cattle ranchers and environmentalists. The battle is rife with mistrust and misunderstanding by all.

One unforeseen opportunity/consequences that will result is millions of acres of previously useful hay production land of our western valleys that produced hay for the cattle that were grazed in the nearby public lands will have to find another use. These farms and ranches freshly freed from the bovine production industry will naturally evolve into something else, it isn’t too hard to guess that the highest and most profitable use of land is to subdivide it for profit creating millions of buying possibilities for America’s new insatiable appetite for rural living, and technology’s facilitation for them to be able to do so. Public land ranching maintains open space.  One hundred seven million acres of private ranch land is tied into public land grazing.  Without access to public land forage, these ranches would be forced to sell out. According to Rangelands Journal, 11,300 acres of farm and ranch land is lost to development each day. The greatest threat to biodiversity of plants and wildlife is fragmentation of habitat and public land ranching protects millions of acres of open habitat for rangeland species.

Is Skye Clark wondering about the future of ranching or just surviving the winter?
Is Skye Clark wondering about the future of ranching or just surviving the winter?

The influx of millions of gentleman farmers/ranchers will decimate wildlife much more than cattleman ever did, every farmette will have a dog to see to it that no pesky grouse or other varmint is trespassing on the property. What the dog misses will be picked off by a 14 year-old with a 22. The exponential population growth will be matched with an equal increased visitation to all the beautiful public places putting ever-increasing pressure on our special places.

The iconic cowboy brings to mind, horses, cattle, the howl of a coyote, and wide-open spaces, the cowboy riding off into the sunset. In the west, all these things are still alive and well, but sadly the cowboy may be riding off into the sunset for good. One hundred fifty years ago the cowboy squeezed the Indian off the land, and now it is the cowboy getting the squeeze.

Is the cultural bonding of the Lundquist family biannual cattle drive going to come to an end Swan Valley Rancher Mark Lundquist returning from moving salt blocks to higher ground to keep his cattle out of a creek bottom during an extended wet spell.
Is the cultural bonding of the Lundquist family biannual cattle drive going to come to an end and force the reallocation and purpose of the green space their ranch provides along the Snake River in Swan Valley, Idaho? Swan Valley Rancher Mark Lundquist returning from moving salt blocks to higher ground to keep his cattle out of a creek bottom during an extended wet spell. Public land ranchers are disparaged by environmentalists but on this day Mark got hypothermia going the extra mile to be a good steward of the land.
Nelson Cattle Drive, Alpine Wyoming. 85-year old Blackfoot Idaho cowboy still living the dream
Nelson Cattle Drive, Alpine Wyoming. Ranching is a lifestyle the whole family takes part in, young and old come out for the brandings and cattle drives and chores are rotated throughout the family all year long. 85-year old Blackfoot Idaho cowboy still living the dream

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