By Luke Anderson
February 11, 2016
Wyoming is not referred to as “The Cowboy State” for no reason. Wyoming's early history epitomized the spirit of the "wild" West, defined by rambunctious towns and endless vistas of daunting wilderness. Survival in 19th century Wyoming depended on the the hardened grit of the cowboys and cowgirls that settled in the territory, and with all that available land, ranching was a logical industry for many to turn to. In fact, agriculture remains Wyoming’s third largest industry today (after mineral extraction and tourism). The success of ranching is thanks to the open acreage needed to support our cattle industry that Wyoming's wide-open spaces allow.
The first recorded cattle drive in Wyoming happened in 1866 when Nelson Story drove 600 Texas longhorns past Fort Laramie up the Bozeman Trail. By 1870, the Wyoming assessment listed 8,143 cattle; a year later, that number had more than doubled. The September 12, 1871 Cheyenne Leader noted that “immense herds of cattle are constantly arriving from the east.” The open spaces of the ranches transferred wealth to the isolated cities, resulting in many "cattle baron" mansions, such as the Nagle Warren Mansion in Cheyenne.
Typically, ranchers owned several thousands acres with cowboys doing the work of these enormous spreads. These large properties are one of the things that helped preserve Wyoming's open spaces for so long. Another contributing factor were the ranchers' use of the public range. Today, leased BLM acreages are essential for these large ranch operations. Nonetheless, many factors are straining the viability of these historic ranches. Increasingly, these historic properties are being transformed into “ranchettes,” hobby ranches of 35 acres or less that no longer raise livestock. Other ranchers are finding bison to be more economical than cattle.
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