By Madison Pollart, WSGA Communications Intern
Many of us grew up watching with wide eyes the heroic folklore of western movies. Regardless of the plot, there was always something enamoring about John Wayne sauntering onscreen and calling the shots with his deep, calming voice. While the Duke was a crowd pleaser, it was his portrayal of the American cowboy and western way of life that keeps generations of families watching those old VHS tapes. The idea of driving cattle for miles, camping under the stars and fighting off any dangers the elements present is exciting to watch on the silver screen. What many do not realize however is that in some special places, those old ways of the West are still alive today, but with modern problems.
Such is the case for those families and ranches who partake in the Upper Green River Drift Cattle Drive in western Wyoming each spring. The crews come together, the horses are saddled, and cowboys, cowgirls and cattle begin the long trek north to U.S. Forest Service (USFS) allotments where the cattle will graze for the summer. Depending on their location along the Drift, some ranches will trail their cattle up to 80 miles. This cattle drive has seldom changed over the past 124 years—not even the names. Sommers. Murdock. Price. Swain. Wardell. These families have been driving their cattle on the Drift since their ranches were homesteaded in the late 19th century.
“It’s home,” said Jeannie Lockwood, of Murdock Land & Livestock. “We’re lucky.”
Jeannie is the third generation of her family to run the ranch, and she hopes to keep the operation in the family, as her children and grandchildren now also call it home.
For most of May and some of June, these ranches graze their cattle on BLM allotments in places known as the Little Colorado Desert and the Mesa. Come middle of June, ranchers begin driving their cattle north to the Bridger-Teton National Forest, where U.S Forest Service grazing permits allow ranches to utilize these federal lands during the summer months, from mid-June through mid-October.
The cattle drive is an important part of the ranching process. After the cattle have been fed at home on their ranches throughout the winter, had their calves and those calves have been worked, it is time for the herd to move to their summer grazing places. This allows the meadows and grasses back at the ranch to grow and be put up as hay—ready to be fed the following winter. After having grazed the USFS allotments for much of summer, the cattle then naturally “drift” back down south, where ranchers and hired cowboys await the herd, ready to sort cattle back to their home ranches.
This cycle is a well-thought, efficient and economical system that has been proven to work for over a century…and use of these federal lands is a key component.
However, grazing on USFS lands is not without its challenges, namely the threat of grizzly bears to cattle. While the grizzly bear is still listed on the Endangered Species List, biological evidence has shown time and again that the grizzly bear population of this region has recovered significantly.
In fact, in June of 2017 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials cited a distinct population of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears and recommended they be removed from the List of Threatened and Endangered Wildlife. However, various lawsuits and environmental groups have allowed the grizzly bear to maintain its spot on the list.
Aware that grizzly bears pose a significant threat to these cattle grazing on forest lands, USFWS has allowed for lethal removal of well-documented nuisance grizzly bears that have killed a significant number of cattle.
Even with the ability to remove problem grizzlies, ranchers saw a loss of 79 confirmed head of cattle killed by grizzlies in 2015 alone. Though the Wyoming Game & Fish Department does write compensatory checks for documented grizzly bear kills, such a number still results in thousands of dollars being lost by ranchers.
Now, a new problem presents itself to these ranchers who have grazed these lands for generations—radical environmental groups. Recently, the Western Watersheds Project, along with Yellowstone to Uintas Connection and Alliance for the Wild Rockies, have filed lawsuits against the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, proclaiming these grazing practices—that have efficiently been used for years—pose a significant threat to grizzly bear populations and violate the Endangered Species Act. An additional case has also been filed in the same court by other environmental groups.
These groups are fighting to halt all lethal removal of nuisance grizzly bears.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bear population has steadily recovered and established itself over the past 45 years…even with the use of lethal removal of problem bears, which has been monitored and carried out by Wyoming Game & Fish officials. Yet even with monitoring of the population, these radical environmental groups want to prohibit the lethal removal of all grizzly bears that have been meticulously documented as having killed multiple head of cattle.
As if ranchers’ margin for profit was not already alarmingly narrow.
“These families have cared for the land far longer and far better than any agency or activist has,” said Brian Gregg, Mountain States Legal Foundation’s lead attorney on the case.
Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) is a non-profit, public interest law firm, focused on defending the constitution, protecting property rights, and advancing economic liberty. MSLF filed and was granted a motion to intervene in the case in order to defend the rights of these American ranchers to access federal land, as they have for generations, and to protect the legacy of the people who built the West. Fortunately, MSLF understands the consequences facing ranchers if these environmentalists are to achieve their goal.
“It will create open season on the cattle,” Gregg pointed out. “Bears will be allowed to kill livestock with impunity essentially. There will be no remedy beyond nonlethal and potentially pretty ineffective options for trying to save the herd.”
While skilled range riders tend the cattle through the summer, there is only so much that ranchers can do to cohabitate with grizzlies. The threat of which requires them to move cattle often, in a futile attempt to navigate the grazing area to reduce the number of kills.
Any rancher with cattle in high stress environments understands that this can lead to lower gain per head, and less money coming back to the operation in the fall due to lower weight calves. Allowing the grizzly bears in the area to have free reign on these herds—not to mention the hands taking care of them—is about as stressful as the situation can get.
“On top of all their usual duties, range riders have the duty of watching out for the grizzly bears, identifying cattle that have been killed, and contacting our wildlife officials to document the kills,” said Jim Magagna, Executive Vice President of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. “It’s inevitable we have put those humans at a greater risk because of the grizzly bears being there.”
MSLF is representing WSGA, the Upper Green River Cattle Association, Price Cattle Ranch, Murdock Land & Livestock Co., and Sommers Ranch LLC on the case. Significant progress has already been made, for in mid-June a U.S. District judge rejected the preliminary injunction filed by the environmental groups that would have immediately stopped the use of lethal removal. This could have had dire consequences, being that these ranchers were moving their herd to these northern allotments.
“It’s nerve wracking,” added Lockwood. “Even with the risk we still take our cattle to the Forest Service allotments because pasture is so hard to find. We can’t go anywhere else.”
Lockwood has been a part of the drive since she was a child and can remember many of the children from neighboring ranches joining to ride. After high school she even served as a range rider for a summer near Green River Lakes. Lockwood recognizes the importance of this drive, these grazing allotments and the cultural significance of this way of life. Luckily, she is not the only one.The Upper Green River Drift is the only ranching related Traditional Cultural Property to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The history and culture of this cattle drive is something that the families involved hope to continue for generations. Legal help from organizations like MSLF is vital to ensuring that hope comes true.
The soft melody of Willie Nelson’s, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys” comes to mind as I learn more about this epic cattle drive. This phrase has always rung true for me, whether it be John Wayne, the cowboys that have made up my family for generations or my own father, who I continue to learn from daily. They all serve as role models to me.
The ranchers and riders of the Upper Green, who have worked hard and put in long days moving their cattle north for the summer—always maintaining their role as good stewards of the land and the animals that roam it—most definitely are included on this list. There is something incredibly noble about raising livestock to feed the world.
Ranching is by no means an easy way of life, but for most of us—we would not want to live any other way. For ranchers like Lockwood, the dream is that love for the land and western way of life can continue for generations…despite the obstacles thrown in the way.
“I don’t know,” Lockwood concluded. “I hope that we continue to do what we are doing. I hope we can continue on.”
I believe that just like in the great western movies, the good guys will win. The heroes will prevail. After all, my heroes have always been cowboys.