Tony Vagneur: Whether grazing or mining, the West was worn down by expansion |

Tony Vagneur: Whether grazing or mining, the West was worn down by expansion

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

Like all things disastrous, it started slowly before building to a great crescendo that no one had any control over. Cattle were king of the West in those days, 1870 to 1885. Money flowed in from Europe and eastern investors sent fistfuls of green to the cattle barons of the day. Herd sizes increased exponentially and the U.S. had some of the largest cattle herds seen anywhere in the world.

There were no fences, at least not to define property boundaries, and anyone with enough wherewithal to put together a herd had vast expanses on which it could graze. Big operations, the ones attracting big investors, kept rounding up and buying more cattle and were never sure exactly how many quadruped bovines they actually had.

They just kept turning them out into those wide-open spaces, rounding them up only when needed for branding or market. The result, naturally, was that in many cases they overloaded the available pasturage, making overgrazing a serious but mostly unrecognized problem.

To be fair, very few at the time had enough sophistication or knowledge to fully understand the issue so, in general, there wasn’t any alarm to be raised about overgrazing. It was a fatal partnership between greed and ignorance that led to destructive land practices.

Cool summers and mild winters had made cattle ranching fairly easy, and there always seemed to be plenty of winter forage to keep fat cattle alive through the winter, but all of that changed from 1886 to 1887.

The spring of 1886 was very dry, with very little rain, retarding the growth of grass, and a scorching hot summer burned up what little fodder there was. By November, it started snowing almost every day, covering up whatever feed was left.

Cattle already were starving and dying when Jan. 9, 1887, rolled around, bringing with it a blizzard of immense proportions. It snowed an inch an hour, propelled forward by high-powered winds on top of the already deep snow, and the temperature plummeted to 35 below and then 50 and then, in some areas, to 65 degrees below zero.

Death’s door had already opened for thousands of cattle by the time the blizzard hit, and it didn’t take long for weakened animals to die from exposure, starvation, or to simply freeze to death on the spot. Cattle looking for relief traveled with the raging winds, at least those who had the energy, and eventually found themselves trapped in drift-filled ravines, shallow rivers or trapped tight against drift fences, staggered haphazardly across parts of the Great Plains.

To add insult to injury, a warm chinook wind briefly blew through and, immediately after, temperatures plunged once again to the depths on the mercury scale. Now, surviving cattle and horses alike were forced to walk through deep snow with a frozen layer on top, which soon tore through skin and hide on the animal’s legs, leaving them in tragic, bone-exposed condition.

There wasn’t much to do but wait it out and hope your entire herd didn’t succumb to the disastrous winter. When the spring warm-up came, the catastrophe was mind-wrenching. Between Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas millions of carcasses littered the land. It is estimated that as high as 90 percent of the then-existing cattle herds were wiped out by the blizzard.

It was the end of an era. Foreign and eastern investors were scared away and it became clear to the serious ranchers remaining that they needed to run smaller herds, needed to raise hay and grain for their cattle, and needed to set up legitimate ranch territories with a headquarters and fenced boundaries. The days of “before the wire” were over, the great trail drives extinguished. Except for some areas in California and northern New Mexico, overgrazing was fairly well put behind the cattle industry, although to this day some of the damage can still be seen.

Where once there were hundreds of thousands of cattle roaming the various territories without any obvious hold on the land, there were now hundreds of thousands of sheep continually grazing through the countrysides, particularly in Nevada, Idaho and New Mexico. Since they were always on the move in trans-human fashion, the cattle ranchers tolerated them reasonably well, although in the end, ranchers increasingly became reluctant to share their grass with the sheep men moving through the country.

This eventually led to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, whose main tenant stipulated that to gain grazing rights on public land, the livestock owner must own private property at the base of the permitted area. This was an end to an interesting era in the sheep ranching business.

Rather than suffer lasting damage from sheep or cattle ranching, Pitkin County suffered at the hands of mining interests who ravaged her forests and mountainsides, and the professional hunters who extirpated the elk and deer populations in this area. No one in the West seems to walk away unscathed.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at