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 Exhibits: People and the Land


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    End of One Era, Beginning of Another
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Cattle grazing in Agua Fria National Monument, Arizona

Cattle grazing in Agua Fria National Monument, Arizona

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A dust devil sweeps across  the Caribou National Forest

A dust devil sweeps across the Caribou National Forest
Courtesy USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Region

By 1885 experienced ranchers and cattlemen were greatly worried. The range was seriously overgrazed. Pasturage became poorer each year and herds could no longer be driven to fresh feeding grounds because there was none left. Ranchers began to fence in their land to keep unwanted cattle out and increasingly banded together in livestock breeding associations. These cooperative enterprises kept newcomers out of fully stocked ranges, oversaw roundups, offered bounties for wolves, and settled disputes among members.

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Snowstorm on the Fishlake National Forest, UtahSnowstorm on the Fishlake National Forest, Utah

Snowstorm on the Fishlake National Forest, UtahSnowstorm on the Fishlake National Forest, Utah
Courtesy USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Region

Predictably, the overproduction of beef drove prices down. Combined with mounting costs, such as the price of fencing, it started a downward spiral, which needed only an external force to develop into a full-blown crash. Such force was provided by Nature during the harsh winter of 1885-86 which took a heavy toll in the herds of the northern Plains. The summer that followed was hot and exceptionally dry and worried ranchers began to dump cattle on the market, driving prices further down. Those who sold were lucky because the winter of 1886-87 turned out to be a nightmare that would haunt ranchers for generations to come. The snows came early and heavy, by November the northern plains were under a deep cover of snow. Then, in January of 1887, one of the worst blizzards in memory roared across the Plains from Canada to Texas. Temperatures plummeted in its wake, sinking down to 68 degrees below zero. Cattle, unable to drift in front of the blizzard because of fences, bunched up in ravines or along fence lines and died by the tens of thousands.

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Abandoned ranch cabin near the Missouri River in Montana

Abandoned ranch cabin near the Missouri River in Montana

The great cattle boom was about to burst. Pressed by creditors, the livestock raising corporations dumped their steers on the market. Texas growers unloaded stock no longer needed on the northern Plains, depressing prices even further. Company after company went into bankruptcy; rancher after rancher followed them on the same path. In Wyoming alone, the number of cattle declined from 9 million in 1886 to 3 million nine years later.

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    CO Bar Ranch
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Cattle roundup on the Ashley National Forest

Cattle roundup on the Ashley National Forest

Considering what took place on the northern Plains, 1886 did not seem like the year to go into the cattle business. Apparently, that thought did not occur to the five Babbitt brothers of Cincinnati, Ohio who did just that. Actually, the decision was made earlier, at the height of the cattle fever, in 1884, but unlike other easterners who boarded the trains in a headlong rush to the Plains, these brothers had a plan. They went scouting first, cris-crossing the west, looking for a likely place to start a ranch. One by one, the great cattle ranges of the Plains country were eliminated for different reasons: not enough land (Kansas and Nebraska), too cold (Montana and Wyoming), too high (Colorado), or too hot (southern New Mexico and Arizona). Finally, in the spring of 1886 the scouts found what they were looking for in northern Arizona and the CO Bar Ranch was born.

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Cows grazing on the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument

Cows grazing on the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument

Today, the CO Bar Ranch sprawls across 650,000 acres north of Flagstaff, Arizona. Although larger than most non-corporate ranches, the CO Bar faces the same challenges most ranches in the west also face: how to maintain a century-old way of life without succumbing to the temptations of real estate development or the pitfalls of the economy. If the CO Bar met these challenges more successfully than some others, it was because of a deeply rooted belief in stewardship, assuming the responsibilities of caring for the land, and cooperation with others.

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Riding the range near Vernal, Utah

Riding the range near Vernal, Utah

Team South will visit the CO Bar Ranch August 26. Be sure to join us then!

  Part One--

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