John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 2-18-13
February 18, 2013
After the great, ranging buffalo herds were eliminated from the Great Plains, and the bones and hides shipped back East, settlements began to spring up and endure free of both buffalo and tribal disturbance. Without buffalo, the tribes had no way of sustaining their economies. The buffalo were to the tribes what oil is to our present-day economies.
With no source of food, clothing, or shelter, the tribes were forced into an economic depression that left them few options but to accept the confines of reservations. There is reasonable speculation that the great buffalo slaughter did more to suppress tribal territorial claims on the Great Plains than all the famous pursuits, conflicts and battles.
Though homesteaders could now settle with one less risk in the substantial bundle of risks they faced in the new territories, such as drought, tornados, blizzards, rustlers and economic panics, an argument began after the great buffalo slaughter that is now about a hundred years old, and still waging: are the surviving buffalo wild beasts, or domestic creatures?
There are tame buffalo herds in the U.S. that trace their breeding stock back to the original wild animals through domestication, and there are some who believe that getting a little buffalo blood into cattle is a good thing for vigor and enhancement of the front quarters. Thus, buffalo is commonly understood, and accepted, in cattle circles. The domestic buffalo herds require stout fencing, and the product is marketed in a couple of different ways: one, with devotion to the wild animal concept, and the other, as basically feedlot buffalo.
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However, wild buffalo still roam, buffalo that are not in a domestic herd, fenced from civilization. The way this happened is that much of the Western U.S. was never homesteaded, leaving a lot of territory in federal and state ownership. In Colorado, about 40 percent of the land was never homesteaded. In Wyoming, about 70 percent is public lands, and in Nevada, about 90 percent is still public. Montana is about 50 percent public lands.
Some of the lands that were never homesteaded were too rugged for farming or ranching and were dedicated by Teddy Roosevelt and Pinchot to the National Forest system in the early 1900s, now containing some 12 million acres. Other public lands were never homesteaded because they were barren or productive only with enormous inputs that were beyond the means of individual homesteaders. Many of these lands were later homesteaded when the federal government provided what is now known as the “Four Rs” to Western homesteaders: Railroads, Reservoirs, Roads and Rural Electrification.
On the various public lands, a few remaining wild buffalo began to roam. Their numbers were not sufficient to cause concerns about big stampedes across the Great Plains, but they were enough to cause concern about the spread of a dread disease among domestic cattle herds, bangs or brucellosis, which can be carried by buffalo to cattle.
When wild buffalo from public lands migrate into domestic herds on private property, it’s a potential problem. Many ranchers have exercised their second amendment rights in response to this potential problem. On one side are the naturalists who see value in preserving the wild buffalo as an icon of the West, and on the other side are business people whose livelihood depends on herd production. Future articles will go into this issue in more detail. ❖