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Madeleine Murdock, who lives on a bluff overlooking her ranch outside of Pinedale, noted in an interview the other day that almost every lifelong participant in the Green River Drift – an annual cattle drive that takes livestock high into the Wind River Range – had at some time been seriously injured in this line of work. We’re not talking about a missing finger, which is almost as common among cowhands as the hat, but rather the kind of injury that eventually took the life of her husband, Stan Murdoch, after his horse tripped and rolled on him.
“People ask me if I worry about my son Scott, who’s a pilot,” she said. “I do, of course, but the real risk of flying ranks fairly low – agriculture is number one.”
Murdoch, a former art teacher, is originally from Scotland, and, in her senior years, with her husband gone, she doesn’t have to stay haltered to the ranch. But she does. She travels some, but “the best part of it is coming home.” She values the quiet, the open space, the work, the people. You spend time alone, but it isn’t lonely.
That echoes what you hear from many of the Drift families: the injuries, the hard work, the isolation – those things won’t drive them off the range. They love the life. If anything’s going to stop them, it’s going to be a collapse in the beef market (no sign of that this year, it’s booming) or grizzly bears, or government regulations, or billionaires shopping for trout streams, or activists who think heifers should be heaved off public lands.
Now there’s a lonely enterprise. Jonathan Ratner, the Wyoming rep of the Western Watersheds project, is generally by himself when he hikes around Upper Green grazing allotments sampling water to analyze for pollutants like E. Coli, which he claims is elevated by the presence of bovine bear bait. If you believe livestock are bespattering riparian areas, if you believe cows are chomping down the chow that would otherwise feed wildlife, and if you actually say so out loud in Wyoming…well, you better enjoy the solitary life. And he does: Ratner can happily fend for himself on long solo trips in the Wind River Mountains, and he is similarly unfazed when he finds himself mostly alone (at least in Wyoming) when he criticizes public land grazing.
For a documentary on the Green River Drift, we trail Ratner around, just as we follow ranchers when they do their own data collection, laying out transects and measuring Idaho fescue to document the health of the vegetation. It’s a battle not just of beliefs, but of science. Both would claim they serve the cause of preserving healthy, open, wild spaces…but, given their divergent views of how best to do that, it’s probably best to keep a substantial amount of that space between them.
It’s no surprise that an anti-grazing activist like Ratner has few friends in the Green River ranching community. It is surprising, though, that other conservation groups active in Wyoming steer clear of him as well. Ranchers – like farmers – often talk as if the whole world’s against them. In truth, they still wield a lot of political and financial clout in Wyoming.
And, there’s a general good will toward their enterprise: a lot of people want to believe ranching in the West can be done sustainably, healthfully, and deliver a good steak that wasn’t fabricated in a laboratory. Even when that means giving cattle some low-cost public grass to nibble. A lot of people, including some who live in faraway cities, want to believe that there’s still a place in the country where you can make a living working outdoors, experience the cycle of seasons, and know the land in the most personal, hands-on way.
You don’t have to be born to it to understand that. You could be a young school teacher from the British Isles who came to Wyoming for a few years of adventure, and met Stan Murdock, and made it a life.
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— Geoffrey O’Gara is a writer and documentary producer based in Lander, Wyoming. He hosted the Capitol Outlook and Wyoming Chronicle programs on Wyoming PBS. His books include What You See in Clear Water (Vintage), and A Long Road Home (Houghton-Mifflin).
— Columns are the signed perspective of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WyoFile’s staff, board of directors or its supporters. WyoFile welcomes guest columns and op-ed pieces from all points of view. If you’d like to write a guest column for WyoFile, please contact WyoFile editor-in-chief Dustin Bleizeffer at [email protected]