Wyoming Ranching

Ranching probably plays a more important role in Wyoming life than it does in any other state. Wyoming never had rich strikes of gold and silver like neighboring Colorado and Montana which brought thousands of miners and their followers so there was little to hold any of the stream of settlers passing through with dreams of gold or a more bountiful agricultural environment farther west. After the Civil War with less danger of hostile Indians and dwindling numbers of buffalo, raising cattle became possible and with the advent of the railway in 1867 a market for beef had opened. A supply of cows was needed and there was an overabundance of them in Texas where there was little market for cattle. The problem was transporting them. Fearsome Comanche cavalry had held up settlement in Texas and travel north for decades, but with the Civil War over the army had been able to reduce the danger of Indian attacks. Cattle could be worth ten times as much at the railheads in Kansas as they were in Texas and people in Wyoming and neighboring states were seeking cattle to begin their own ranching operations.

cattle-drive-largeThe time was ripe for the great cattle drives from Texas going as far north as Montana to begin. Stories of these drives have captured the popular imagination internationally and they were by far the biggest cattle drives in the history of the world. The courage, determination and resourcefulness required to overcome the enormous obstacles and the multiple dangers faced were epical. Hostile Indians, crossings of flooded rivers, vast waterless plains, outlaws and stampedes were constant threats. The scale of operations was enormous. Millions of cattle were moved from Texas as far north as Montana and it took thousands of men and tens of thousands of horses to accomplish it. The peak year was 1884 when an estimated 800,000 head crossed the Red River to move north. The riders performed exceptional feats of horsemanship and were mounted on courageous, athletic horses many of which were descended from wild mustang stock. The appeal and romance of the era gave rise to movies like “Red River” and “Lonesome Dove” and has been the subject of countless songs, poems, short stories and books. These cattle drives are responsible for much of the “cowboy” mystique. Certainly there was much exaggeration at times in the accounts of those great cattle drive days, but it is often well documented and many of the cowboys truly were heroes. Real events were often stranger than fiction; making hyperbole superfluous.

By the mid 1890s cattle herds were well established in Wyoming. Barbed wire fencing was springing up everywhere. Millions of sheep had also been introduced causing bitter rivalry and sometimes bloody clashes with the cattle men. The railways made access far easier and the Homestead Act of 1862 enabled settlers to acquire land west of the Mississippi free, simply by living on it and improving it. The lawless, chaotic, traumatic days of the West were drawing to a close with amazing speed. Custer’s Last Stand, the Hole-in-the-wall Gang and the great buffalo herds were only memories. The era of the great drives, like that of the mounted Indian warrior and unrestricted range, glittered brightly for a brief, shining moment in history, flickered and died, but left behind a fascinating legend and a world forever vastly changed.

Raising cattle and sheep in Wyoming is not the same as in the fertile fields of Iowa where less than an acre is needed per cow; in Wyoming it might be more like 100 acres and the land may be cut up by deep gorges, forests and mountains. All along the Rocky Mountain area of the West the transhumance or moving of stock in spring and fall to and from the higher mountains is still vital to the operation of most ranches. They depend on having their stock graze in the high country during the summer so that they can grow feed for the winter in the lower valleys. Most Wyoming ranches would not be viable without these seasonal movements. Much of the grazing in the high country is in inaccessible places and sometimes in wilderness where all motors are forbidden so that the only practical way to work the cows over these vast areas is still on horseback. Wyoming is a leading state for lamb and wool production, but the predator problem makes raising them difficult because they are such easy prey for predators like the ubiquitous coyote so they must be constantly watched. It became impossible to find Americans willing to do the difficult, low paid job of caring for sheep so Basque shepherds were brought in a century ago from the Pyrenees and proved outstandingly good at the work which their ancestors had done for many generations. Before long, however, even the Basques decided that there were easier ways to earn a living and only a few old men remain in the business. Now sheep men have turned to Peruvians who are also skilled shepherds in their homeland, but they too are being lured by higher paying jobs in the cities. The result is that herds of sheep in Wyoming are only a fraction of what they were 60 years ago.

The problems faced by the early ranchers were enormous. Predators like wolves, bears and coyotes attacked their animals. The wolves, like the Indians, had depended mainly on the huge herds of buffalo which had disappeared so they naturally turned to the far more vulnerable cattle replacing them on the range. Their depredations took a terrible toll until Government trappers finally managed to get them under control by the 1920s. Cattlemen had to guard their herds vigilantly night and day and keep their rifles at the ready. Lately a larger and fiercer kind of wolf from the Arctic has been introduced in northwest Wyoming again causing time consuming and costly problems for ranchers which are little understood by urban dwellers.

In order to keep cattle in the winter when mountainous areas are covered with deep snow, hay and other feed must be harvested in fields at lower altitudes. Since rainfall is usually too sparse to support agriculture in the lower areas irrigation is needed for satisfactory crops. Fortunately the mountains do get a generous amount of snow and rainfall so that streams and rivers flood high in spring with the melting snows. Thus the first priority of ranchers was to divert water from streams and rivers to irrigate their fields which had often been conveniently flattened by glaciers long before. These are the same techniques which enabled agriculture to get started in Egypt and Mesopotamia millennia ago. Seasons for growing are short as most of Wyoming’s low country is still nearly a mile high, but conditions are excellent for producing high quality grass and alfalfa hay. Some crops like sugar beets and barley are grown successfully in parts of the state, but most agriculture is really tied to feed for livestock. Ranchers therefore are farmers too, though plowing and irrigating the fields hardly has the same exciting appeal as working cattle on horseback. Some big dams have now been built which help control spring runoff, generate hydroelectric power and make large irrigation systems possible.

An important aspect of ranching is tourism and the dude ranch has been a popular attraction in Wyoming for over a century. Dude ranches used to be working ranches where the owners would take paying guests who would join in ranch activities like working cattle as well as just riding, fishing and hunting for the fun of it. Some “dude ranches” have become simply resorts with swimming pools, saunas and horseback riding, but many are still working cattle ranches where they raise and train their own horses as in the early days. These authentic ranches can give visitors the hands on feel of cowboy life.

It is significant that rodeos are very popular in Wyoming and of course the various events are derived from practical ranch work. In the summer weekly rodeos take place in many small towns and are a great social event for the local people. One of America’s greatest rodeos, Frontier Days, is held every year in Cheyenne attracting thousands of tourists and many of the world’s top riders and horses. The accompanying pageantry is always sumptuous.