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Greater Yellowstone’s Western Heritage

Backlit Cowboys, wranglers preparing the remuda (Daryl Hunter's "The Hole Picture"/Daryl L. Hunter)

Backlit cowboys, wranglers preparing the remuda for a days work

J.P. Robinson, a rancher from Freedom Idaho
J.P. Robinson, a rancher from Freedom Idaho/Wyoming. This cowboy seems to me to be gazing off into an uncertain future for the heritage he and his family are a part of

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. Mont. 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.”

Nelson Cattle Drive, Alpine Wyoming. June is the time many ranchers move their cattle to the mountains so they can grow hay on their property so the cows will have something to eat when they come out of the mountains for the winter...My photos are not to be used for anti public land ranching interests.

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.

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.

Swan Valley Idaho Rancher Mark Lundquist returning from moving his cattle out of a creek bottom during an extended wet spell.
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.

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 fall 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.

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.

Wyoming cowgirl, Skye Clark, working cows, Smoot Wyoming The cowboys of the west are under assault because many don't like to see their cows on public land. I have written a couple of articles articulating the problem. My photos are not to be used for anti public land ranching interests. (© Daryl Hunter's "The Hole Picture"/Daryl L. Hunter)

Wyoming cowgirl / rancher, Skye Clark, working cows, Star Valley Wyoming

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 15 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, part of this plan is to end the grazing of our public multipurpose lands.

Cowgirl Wrangler, Cattle Drive, Alpine Wyoming. My photos are not to be used for anti public land ranching interests. The cowboys of the west are under assault because many don't like to see their cows on public land. I have written a couple of articles articulating the problem. (© Daryl Hunter's "The Hole Picture"/Daryl L. Hunter)

Will there be a ranching future for Cydnie Clark and thousands of young ranching progeny like her to inherit if organizations like the Western Watersheds Project have their way and put families like hers out of business?

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.

Cowgirl, Cydnie Clark working cows in Alpine Wyoming,  My photos are not to be used for anti public land ranching interests. The cowboys of the west are under assault because many don't like to see their cows on public land. I have written a couple of articles articulating the problem. (© Daryl Hunter's "The Hole Picture"/Daryl L. Hunter)

Cowgirl, Cydnie Clark driving cows along the Greys River in Alpine 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.  107 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.

Cattle drive in Swan Valley Idaho. June is the time many ranchers move their cattle to the mountains so they can grow hay on their property so the cows will have something to eat when they come out of the mountains for the winter...The cowboys of the west are under assault because many don't like to see their cows on public land. I have written a couple of articles articulating the problem. My photos are not to be used for anti public land ranching interests. (Daryl Hunter's "The Hole Picture" • Daryl L. Hunter has been photographing the Yellowstone Region since 1987, when he packed up his view camera, Pentex 6X7, and his 35mm’s and headed to Jackson Hole Wyoming. Besides selling photography Daryl also publ/Daryl L. Hunter)

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?

The influx of millions of gentleman farmers/ranchers will decimate wildlife much more than cattleman 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.

Team Ropers Competing in Jackson Hole Wyoming
Team ropers competing in Jackson Hole Wyoming. I fear that one day rodeo competitions, trail rides, and guest ranches will be the last vestiges of western culture in the Rocky Mountains.

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.

Copyright © 2012 All Rights Reserved By Daryl L. Hunter ~ written for and originally published in The Greater Yellowstone Resource Guide

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12 thoughts on “Greater Yellowstone’s Western Heritage

  1. Laura says:

    Nicely done Daryl

  2. Philip says:

    This is superb Daryl. Your writing skills match your amazing photography skills. Eloquent and profound. This should be published. Hats (stetson of course) off to you!

  3. Sharon says:

    So glad you put a voice and “why” to some hard questions being asked about “the west”. You are truly a caretaker of our national heritage. Thanks for your photos and stories.

  4. Daryl,

    Since I know you are familiar with my lineage on my fathers side and Mormon Row, let me explain my mothers side of my family. This will cement my cowboy line. My mother’s Great Grandfather was on of those drovers that herded a string of cattle from Texas into the Cheyenne area of Wyoming. His Grandson was a semi famous ranch hand and Saddle bronc rider in the early 1900’s in and around Cheyenne and Laramie. His name was Guy Holt. One of the few to have ridden the horse Steamboat to a stand still. He was also Saddle bronc champion at Cheyenne Frontier Days in 1903 I believe. During that same period of time he was known to have worked with Tom Horn. His biggest claim to fame was his connection to the horse and rider on the license plates in Wyoming. It is disputed that he may be the model for that picture.

    So Cowboys are very important to myself and where I came from. We can’t lose that way of life. We must continue to promote it and preserve it.

    • Jerry thanks for that bit of history but, you of all people don’t need to cement anything as the keeper and benefactor of the historic Moulton Barns. Jerry as you know, I came her from elsewhere and it just fries my ass that other folks come here from elsewhere and tell you 5th generation locals how you must live now as they as they shove a honey bucket full of legislation up your backside. Legislation that takes the food out of peoples mouths and ruining their culture as they do so. The supercilious nature of these interlopers and their lackeys is shameful. Thanks Jerry!

      For other readers Jerry Moulton is who facilitate the upkeep of the Moulton Barns of which His Grandfather and great uncle built in 1913. Without Jerry’s effort these two pieces of history and Grand Teton Landscape icons would have turned into rubble by now as has the Shane Cabin.


      If any photographers or others would like to make a donation to help with the upkeep of the Moulton Barns, or just learn more about them, visit Jerry’s website “The Moulton Barns

  5. Chris says:

    Great piece, Daryl. I can’t claim “authentic” cowboyhood. Very few can anymore. But it’s in my upbringing and heritage. I know that feeling the morning after branding and vaccinating calves when every muscle you know you have and a lot you don’t are telling you they’re present and accounted for…and hurting with every move, but you go back to work anyway. I remember the finest “cross training” exercise on the ranch: single handedly wrestling creosote drenched railroad ties on and off trailers and into corner post holes for an entire day, then doing it again…the iron grip and steel cable forearms that come from days on the non-business end of a hammer, fencing; on a shovel, irrigating; on a wrench, mechanicing…the choking dust, swarms of Mosquitos and biting horse flies that come with a real cattle drive. But, for all that, there’s the majestic beauty of the outdoors and the miracle of life played out in the herd and in the wild country that surrounds it. Call me a romantic. Call me an old fool. Life may have changed since then, but when there’s a messy or seemingly overwhelming task at hand, the words still run through my mind, “cowboy up, son” and I know, for this wanna be cowboy, the challenge is never bigger than the man.

    • Chris, you bring ranching to life, both the sweat and the joy. You have been there and done that and cowboy is on rightfully on your resume of life. A good place to learn life lessons, I bet you have told your kids and grandkids to cowboy up a time or two.

      Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment.

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