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Feature Story
Prairie Crossroads
Page 2

Of Cows and Men

My drive into the Breaks is not at all aimless. I am headed for the ramshackle house of Gene Barnard. It is redundant to say his land is a ranch; in these parts, all land is. Barnard's place is more or less like the rest around here, maybe a bit more forlorn, with a larger collection of junk equipment. It appears as if every tractor, binder, and baler the operation has ever owned is displayed around the corrals and house, as is the local habit. It's not that there is a particular affection for the machinery, but it would be wasted effort to haul it away. Survivors here don't waste effort.

Photo of a rancher's homeBarnard's house, a simple, small, dilapidated wood frame, sits at the center of the display. No one wastes effort on houses here either, though many of these ranchers are multimillionaires on paper, land rich and cash poor. I once visited a ranch of 100 square miles, and the manse was a double-wide trailer.

Everybody who knows anything about the Breaks has sent me to see Barnard because of his stories. He's 86, and his pride of place is expressed as a natural affection for its history. I ask him about this, and he offers me a seat at the kitchen table. He's glad to see a visitor because he's been snowed in for the past couple of weeks. No mail. An ancient TV blares a game show in the next room. The kitchen itself is piled one end to the other with dishes, food boxes and cans, syringes for doctoring calves, muddy boots, and winter coats.

Barnard starts with the fur-trapping days of the mid-nineteenth century, and with the cattleman Granville Stuart. He pinpoints fixtures like the location of Stuart's first hay meadow and the cottonwoods that were the gibbets of horse thieves. Stuart headed a vigilante group that hanged about 15 men in the Breaks, one of the worst outbreaks of such violence on record in the West.

Ranchers throughout Montana trace their lineage to Stuart, a man with a plan for this landscape. He was among the first of the cattlemen who moved big herds onto Montana's open range, beginning in the early 1880s. It was cattle then and cattle now, and one can be forgiven for believing it was all cattle in between. But it wasn't.

The truth is, those storied days of the open range were transitory and a fiasco of the first order. Fueled by global (especially British) capital, drovers overstocked the range from the beginning. It was a deliberate tactic to overgraze in order to keep competing herds off one's range, all of it then federal land to which the cattlemen had no legal claim. Several Indian tribes did, however: An executive order signed in 1873 had granted the Blackfeet all of the Breaks north of the Missouri River. But the cattle trampled those rights. Stuart's herd arrived in 1880 and prospered during a couple of good years, as did most everyone else's. Profits during this initial boom ran well into double-digit percentages, leading to further overstocking.

The environmental damage from all this remains to be read on the land today. Overgrazing stripped streams of their protective vegetation. Many dried up and never recovered. The stripped banks allowed streams to cut deep gullies in the land that will heal only in geologic time.

The economic damage, meanwhile, was apparent right away. The cattle boom, coupled with a series of drought years, caused a settling of nature's accounts known as the big die-ups. When the grass-stripped range saw its first string of rough winters, beginning in 1886, as many as 362,000 cattle died, 60 percent of the herds. Stuart himself wrote, "A business that had been fascinating to me before suddenly became distasteful. I wanted no more of it. I never wanted to own again an animal that I could not feed and shelter." This archetypal cattle baron wound down his years as a librarian in Butte.

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Click to enlarge

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Photo: Vern Evans
Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Summer 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council