Conserving cowboy culture
Wyoming cattlemen celebrate early victory in fight to save historic cattle drive
Despite cries of opposition from anti-ranching groups who hoped to derail “Wyoming’s last great cattle drive,” dozens of Wyoming’s toughest cowboys, ranchers and cattlemen mounted up for the historic Green River Drift to push their cattle across nearly 60 miles of wild Wyoming landscape to summer range in the Bridger-Teton National Forest.
The event began as scheduled, just as it has for over 120 years, after an early round victory when a federal judge rejected a preliminary injunction to prohibit the lethal removal of documented problem grizzly bears on the Upper Green River summer grazing range, sought by the opposing groups.
A fight for preservation
The case, Western Watersheds Project et al. v. Bernhardt et al., was filed in the Federal District Court of Washington, D.C. against Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service by Western Watersheds Project, Alliance for the Rockies and Yellowstone to Uintas Connection.
Representing the Upper Green River Cattle Association, Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA), Price Cattle Ranch, Murdock Land and Livestock Co. and Sommers Ranch, LLC, Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) filed a motion to intervene in the case in order to defend the rights of local ranchers to access federal land, as they have for generations, and to protect the legacy of the West.
“These families have cared for the land far longer and far better than any agency or activist has,” says MSLF’s Brian Gregg, lead attorney on the case. “The Green River Drift provides 124 years of evidence that ranchers are the real conservationists.”
A threat to ranchers’ livelihood
Gregg explains, “Back in March, the plaintiffs – a coalition of some of the most far-left groups in the nation – filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent federal agencies from using lethal take against grizzly bears in the area where the Green River Drift occurs. Lethal take is basically the killing of problem bears that have repeated, documented conflicts with livestock and humans.”
The environmentalist groups in opposition of the Drift, claim the particular grazing practices involved will harm grizzly bear populations, in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
“This case is basically another front in an overarching war in delisting the grizzly bear from the ESA for over a decade now,” Gregg says.
“In reality, grizzly populations in the region have recovered to the extent that Fish and Wildlife Service officials have twice recommended the Greater Yellowstone grizzly be removed from the endangered species list, most recently in 2017,” he continues. “All the different criteria for recovery have been met, in fact, the recovery of the grizzly population is quite a success story.”
MSLF and the Upper Green River Cattle Association point out removal of problem bears is not done by ranchers, but by state wildlife officials in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, after a pattern of repetitive behavior has been documented and non-lethal means of deterrence have failed.
Another argument they make is that the no-kill rule would mark a sudden departure from long-standing bear management protocols that have kept ranchers and livestock safe through the years.
“The plaintiffs hope to deprive ranchers of the lawful use of their grazing rights by making the use of this summer range more dangerous than usual for cowboys and cattle,” Gregg says. “Turning livestock that have traditionally grazed these lands into a grizzly buffet threatens the economic survival of these ranches, and will destroy this living connection to our history and our heritage.”
“The financial impact of this battle is significant,” adds WSGA Executive Director Jim Magagna. “Back in 2008, when grizzly bear predation wasn’t a big issue yet, the Upper Green River Cattle Association had 22 head of confirmed kills. In 2015, they had 79, and this was with control measures in place. Imagine a scenario with no lethal removal. It would be devastating.”
A historic event
Established in 1896, the Green River Drift has functioned as the essential connecting route between winter feeding grounds in the south and summer grazing lands in the north for many cattle ranchers in the Upper Green River Valley.
The path of the Drift follows the Green River and the New Fork River for much of its route, and has made use of natural features such as draws and creeks to funnel cattle onto a common path and provide a stable supply of water and feed.
“In the spring, starting May 1-25, Upper Green River Cattle Association members graze the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allotments on the Little Colorado Desert or the mesa. Spring grazing on BLM managed lands lasts about two months, May through June,” notes the Upper Green River Cattle Association. “Cowboys start removing cattle from spring BLM pastures and trailing them almost 60 miles north, beginning the middle of June and ending the middle of July.”
The Upper Green River Cattle Association continues, “Each ranch has a specific time they start moving their cattle up the Drift in the spring, with ranches located further to the north starting the move first. The process takes about three to four weeks and each ranches’ herd is on the Drift for about two weeks.”
The association further explains, once cattle reach U.S. Forest Service managed lands in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, cattle from all of the herds run in a common allotment through the summer and fall.
“As cold weather arrives in the late fall, the cattle ‘drift’ out of the forest on their own, moving south, back toward their home pastures,” explains the association. “Strategically located fences direct their movement down to the sorting grounds where they are sorted by brand, rounded up and trailed to their respective home ranches.”
There is no doubt, the Green River Drift is a vital link to Wyoming’s ranching history. In fact, the route and manner of the cattle drive are largely unchanged from when it started in the 1800s, and it is operated by the descendants of the families who homesteaded the area and began the cattle drive, according to the Upper Green River Cattle Association.
Because the event is so unique, it is listed as a traditional cultural property on the National Register of Historic Places, the only ranching-related entity to be so recognized.
Hannah Bugas is the managing editor for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.