In the past three articles, I have been recounting a broad history of ranching in the Western World and its impact on the range environment.
Today I start with a quote from a “cowboy poet,” self- styled, who ranched with her poet partner in Montana.
Sue Wallis, an elected Republican legislator in the Montana state government, died while in office a few years back.
In one of her books of cowboy poetry, entitled “Love, Life and Politics,” 2013, p. 42, Sue writes:
How can I explain… to some idealistic eco-feminist that I understand and empathize with views of non-violence, anti-domination, and peace,
She goes on to itemize many conservative and progressive values and attitudes then ends this way: and, how can I possibly explain that racing horseback, loose and wild through treacherous enchanting terrain, sailing loops from rope swung, weary shoulders to catch wily mustang mares is the most exciting, and addicting occupation known to womankind.
Why on earth, I ask, would anyone want to endure the hardships of chasing three- and four-year-old range steers which have been free and wild for years or wild horses that have been free for many years?
Because, I answer, they relish in the thrills that come with the territory.
I remember the highs of the chase when we had a sizeable herd of horses and had to move them on horseback from pasture to pasture. That may have been the highlight of our children’s upbringing.
The promise of land ownership – control and caring for the land – would have been a great motivator especially when opportunities in the New World were much greater than in the Old Country (Europe).
Rounding up the cattle and horses that were left for years on the open range would have been a difficult and exciting task for the cowboys- Indigenous and settler alike.
As the market increased because of population increase, particularly in the Lower Mainland, the Canadian railway and then the BC Railway assisted in getting the cattle moved.
It took much entrepreneurial effort to gather and drive the herds to their destinations.
Some of the cattle drives like the ones to the Yukon gold rush could be very hard on the feed supply along the routes, leaving little for the local horses and livestock.
Localized concerns continued on the grasslands of the interior as overgrazing had to be mitigated.
Plagues of grasshoppers afflicted the range with the drought of the 1930s being the worst of times.
The ranching culture was variably concerned with the stewardship of the grazing resource. In the minds’s eye of the settler populations, the grass in America was as high as a horse’s belly and levels of production were embedded in the memories of Europeans whose soil at home was older, richer and deeper.
But the healthy swards of natural vegetation could not be sustained, especially as the demand for cultivated grain crops puts demands on the fertility of the soil supporting annual grain cropping.
Today we are experiencing a possible reduction in the ability of the soil to keep up its production.
The Canadian and global targets to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases put challenges to all farmers that necessitates the development of higher stewardship standards.
Despite best efforts by governments and progressive conservation farmers, we are yet to achieve a steady state of nutrient and production cycles on our farms.
The combined threats of animal and human pandemics, weather extremes, global economic shifts (market disruptions from trade sanctions and war), aging demographics in farming, and a growing consciousness about ecological resilience founded on stopping the decline of biodiversity all challenge a farming culture based on exploitation and profit seeking.