Sometimes, you can learn more in a week of just observing Nature than a month of soaking up stats and data. Such was the case during a trek through America’s premier national park.
Just returned to the my post in front of an ever-present computer screen after a week spent trekking and traveling through Yellowstone National Park. It’s a vacation every American should experience at least once.
Want to feel pride in the USA? Enjoy the adulation of people from countries around the world? Bask in a glorious triumph of national foresight and wisdom?
Just wander around any of the tourist attractions in the park — the first, and many would say the best, national park in the entire world, buy the way—and witness Europeans, Asians, Canadians, and many other visitors express their admiration for the natural wonders visible everywhere, and the incredible efficiency with which the National Park Service manages to preserve them despite the impact of millions of campers and tourists who travel the park each summer.
But I’d like to comment on a related observation more relevant to the business of animal agriculture
For starters, let me ask: What do you think is the most iconic animal in Yellowstone? Or maybe I should say, what animal attracts the most attention from the legions of people firing away with their iPhones and Nikons?
Some might say that brown bears and grizzly bears would be No. 1, but the truth is, they’re no longer as visible as they were in years ago, when people would toss them sandwiches from their car windows while creeping toward them for close-up photos. It’s tough to see a bear these days — in seven days, we saw exactly one bear in the distance hustling across an open field toward the tree line.
Nowadays, the star of people’s digital albums is the buffalo, the American bison. A remnant of the once-mighty herds that roamed the West still resides in Yellowstone, and as the biggest boys on the block, bison wander wherever they want, and that often means right down the middle of the two-lane roads that crisscross the park.
Which makes for some awesome images of an herbivore that was the very source of life and livelihood for dozens of Native tribes who inhabited North America across a dozen of millennia.
But as awe-inspiring as a herd of buffalo appear when you experience them up close and personal, I found equal appreciation for some of Nature’s largest herbivores after leaving Yellowstone and viewing the herds that now occupy the bison’s former ecological niche.
Departing the park heading west, you travel through Montana’s Gallatin Valley, which was a surprisingly green landscape even in late June, and populated among the rolling fields of wheat, barley and alfalfa were numerous Black Angus cattle, plus an occasional herd of Herefords.
There’s something comforting about the scores of young calves roaming around wide-open pastures. It’s like seeing an orchard of newly planted trees: It’s an investment in the future, a commitment to producing sustenance that won’t be realized until years later.
A legendary cattle drive
Not surprisingly, cattle are big business in western Montana. Gallatin County, which abuts Yellowstone to the west, is home to approximately 60,000 cattle grazing on close to a thousand working farms and ranches. That’s down from a high of more than 84,000 head 30 years ago, for all of the same reasons the U.S. beef herd has declined, as well.
Perhaps most interesting is how Montana’s cattle industry got started. At the same time that relentless hunting had begun to decimate the buffalo herds at the end of the Civil War, an intrepid pioneer from Ohio named Nelson Story, who had traveled previously been a gold miner in Montana, braved what was then the treacherous Bozeman Trail, which skirted north from the more well-traveled Oregon Trail driving a thousand head of Longhorn cattle he had bought cheaply in war-ravaged Texas. He drove the cattle overland into the Paradise Valley area east of what is now the city of Bozeman.
Story eluded the U.S. Army, which tried to force him back due to threats from hostile Indians, completing a 900-mile cattle drive and establishing one of the earliest herds in Montana. In the years that followed, he carved out a sizable ranch from holdings in the Gallatin Valley.
Later on, he donated land in Bozeman to establish the Agricultural College of the State of Montana, which eventually became Montana State University, the Fighting Bobcats currently competing in the Big Sky Conference with all those directional universities, like Eastern Washington, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.
Story was what we now label as an “entrepreneur,” a miner and a rancher whose business ventures in Bozeman were so successful that he became the town’s first millionaire.
More power to him, his legacy and the modern-day ranchers who now run cattle to feed tens of thousands of families across the same grasslands where buffalo once roamed.
Nobody has any issues — other than nostalgia — with bison.
Is it really all that different now than cattle are the resident species, also critical to the lifestyles and livelihoods of Montana’s residents?
It’s about a 350-mile drive across Montana if you’re heading to Washington state. A long time to ponder that question.
Which always ends with the same short answer: “Of course not!”
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator