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Landmarks and cowboys

Peggy Sanders
Rangeviews, Oral, S.D.

Our ranch is on WG Flat, one of the landmarks of the early cattle ranchers on open range in southwestern South Dakota. The WG Ranch headquarters is one-half mile from our home. In the distance — and from my office window — I can see Harney Peak. According to a plaque on the peak, “Harney Peak is the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees Mountains of Europe.” Adjacent to them are the Needles, a granite rock formation in the Black Hills. West and a bit north of us is Buffalo Gap, an actual gap at the foot of the Black Hills where buffalo meandered on their range and where the Indians chased them in hunts.

Two miles straight north of us is the Cheyenne River with the trees and the shale bluffs.

I think of these landmarks and try to imagine what it was like for the open range ranchers and cowboys, and then the early homesteaders. Some of our cattle summer on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands which total nearly 600,000 acres. The section our son is allotted to run cows in along with six other ranchers is 10,000 acres with 600 cows allowed. When you go out there it gives a sense of what it might have been like. It is wide open and so very beautiful. I see it from a farmer’s perspective. Someone from the city would not even believe there is such a place on earth, and likely would find it haunting and daunting.



Old cowboys had Harney Peak, the Needles, Buffalo Gap and the Cheyenne for landmarks, just as we do now. But they didn’t have the houses and outbuildings to obstruct their view. It must have been something to ride for miles without fences or without seeing another person. Even modern day cowboys who know every rise and ridge in the allotment say that on an overcast day when they can’t see the landmarks, they can become disoriented.

There are remnants of old homesteads out there too. When you read the past diaries and newspaper accounts, it seems the people were a happy lot — and they had more time for neighboring than we take now, even though they baked all of their own bread in a wood cook stove, made their own soap, washed clothes by hand on a washboard, and likely hauled their water in buckets from a creek.



In these grasslands now there are large electricity transfer towers, a low number over the total acres. It is a vast area of grass, wildlife and a few cows. The reason the wildlife can inhabit the grasslands in this arid region is because the ranchers install water pipelines and troughs ostensibly for the cattle, knowing full well the infrastructure also services antelope, coyotes, all manner of birds and anything else that comes across the plains out there. It is my hope that ranchers will someday be thanked for their work in wildlife preservation, rather than vilified for running cattle on the land a few months of the year.


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