Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
October 22, 2010
It was an incredulous remark, inappropriately but casually injected into the conversation, not so much as to make a point, but rather to further inculcate the viewpoint of those of an environmental and political persuasion, one apparently not opposed to using slander in its mission. The remark went something like, “It’s nice to see wild game returning to the Roaring Fork Valley after the intense predator control practices of the ranchers.” What? Others have repeated it several times since.
If you’ve studied local history, you know that the elk herds in this area were exterminated (probably deer, as well), mostly as a result of feeding hungry miners and railroad crews. There was no refrigeration, few cattle, but still fresh meat had to be provided on a regular basis.
Professional hunters were common in those days, men who followed the gold and silver strikes, selling meat to hotels, boarding houses and general stores. They also supplied a secondary and profitable market with elk teeth and animal hides. Ranchers did not plunder the elk population, and I’d wager that if you ordered a steak in an Aspen eatery back then, you couldn’t be sure you weren’t getting bear, cougar, horse or coyote instead of elk, deer or beef.
To be sure, the few ranchers and farmers, just like the thousands of town dwellers, had the frontier belief that there was a right to live off the land, and did so. But in those early days, there were no large herds of cattle to protect; milk cows were more common than beef cattle and farming was still the most viable means of making a living for those preferring the country life.
By the time cattle ranching became the leading money maker in Pitkin County, most of the predators such as bear and mountain lion, at least the ones not killed for meat or sport, had disappeared for there were precious few game animals left to feed on.
To give you an idea of the intense predator control conducted by local ranchers, we have to go no further than my great-grandfather, Jeremie, who emigrated to Woody Creek from Val d’Aosta, Italy, in the 1880s. He wandered Woody Creek and the mountains surrounding it for more than 60 years, tending his farms and cattle, and in that span saw one mountain lion. It doesn’t appear there was much opportunity during his lifetime to desecrate the local pride.
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The Woody Creek ranchers, perhaps unlike those in other states who still fear wolves, realized early on that predators generally will, if given a choice, kill wild game before attacking domestic stock. Those ranchers were instrumental in getting elk reintroduced to this area in 1912.
My grandfather, Ben, born in 1891 with both feet firmly planted in the Old West, ranched in Woody Creek along with his father and four brothers. They were among the first in this area to see the advantages of producing large numbers of cattle and early in the 20th century ran about a thousand head, pasturing them on forest permits in the mountains between Sloan’s Peak and Porphyry Mountain.
Predator control wasn’t on their agendas, as there were very few predators. On our many journeys through the mountains (1950s), Gramps and I once saw a mountain lion in Collins Creek. He said it was only the second or third he had seen in his entire lifetime.
Bears were appreciated for their proclivity to consume the remains of dead cows on the range and certainly weren’t hunted down. According to oral history, from 1940 to 1990, two bears were killed by my family, one when it entered the range rider’s cabin at our cow camp. The other, with bad intentions, attacked a string of horses tied up at the hitching rail during lunch break.
Despite the inaccuracies espoused by those less enlightened, coyotes and free-roaming domestic dogs have created the biggest problems for cattle ranchers in this area. And there has always seemed to be a preponderance of both.
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