John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 10-29-12 |

John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 10-29-12

All ranchers who run stock in the High Country, have stories about an individual critter who didn’t show up during the fall gathering season. As one of my good friends pointed out, sheep usually come out in unison, but cows can straggle for a while.

There are usually a few cows who seem to have a mind of their own, and come out when they feel like it — not when the rancher would like it. Such cows are usually well known to the rancher as bovines resistant to change. They like it up in the wild, until that is, they finally figure out that a bale of hay tastes better than pine bark and a snowpack.

Sometimes, a straggler or two fails to show up. If a cow hasn’t come down after the first big snow, or if her calf comes down and she doesn’t, there’s a legitimate concern that the critter met a sad fate in the jaws of a predator. “I have a few cows who would be hermits if they could,” my friend said.

I asked if he’d ever had a cow turn wild.

“I have a few cows who would be hermits if they could.”

A smile broke over his face as he told me about a red angus cross cow that he acquired from an old kid who traded a lot of problem cows. She was odd looking, real leggy, probably some exotic blood, maybe even some Chi, and she was always a bit squirrely, so they weren’t surprised when she didn’t come down with the herd in October. After snow fell and they didn’t find any tracks, they figured she was in the belly of a bear or a lion. Then, the next summer, his boy was out setting salt and caught a glimpse of her looking out at him through the trees. When he finally got to it and tried to find her, he lost her tracks in a seep field.

Later, however, when my friend’s son thought about it, he wasn’t sure if he actually saw the missing cow. “It mighta been a moose,” he admitted. “Real leggy.”

Three years later, my friend was out doing a mid-summer check. He came up over a ridge and looked down on the upper reaches of a creek heavy in willow growth. He spotted a bull moose, a calf moose and a cow moving in amongst the willow, the bull rubbing his rack against the sprigs and branches, attempting, it seemed, to impress the cow. The calf exhibited occasional curiosity in the machinations of the bull, but the cow was, at turns, indifferent and deflecting to the bull.

My friend pulled up his field glasses. “To this day,” he said, “I’m not sure if that cow was my lost cow or a cow moose. Normally, you’d think this was a foolish confusion, but it was a leggy cow, and it’s possible for a cow to lose some of her ears and tail to extreme frost, and look a lot like a cow elk or moose.”

He couldn’t say for sure it was a cow moose, especially the way she deflected that bull, turning him away, as if maybe she thought he needed to go back to moose school and learn his species. I had to ask my friend if he tried to separate her out and see for sure.

He smiled. “Tangling with moose in the willow would be a wreck with hair on it. Besides, if it actually was the old cow, and she’d gotten cross-threaded with moose, I wouldn’t want her in my herd, and you wouldn’t want her yours.” ❖

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