The End Of The Open Range

When Nelson Story trailed the first Texas longhorn herd to the Gallatin Valley in 1866, Montana held great promise as a ranching Mecca, but 20 years later a cruel winter would put an end to the open range of cowboy lore.

When miners began to flock to southwest Montana in search of gold, cattle were already on the scene. Richard Grant was grazing cattle in the Beaverhead Valley by the early 1850s; the enterprising former fur trader and his sons Johnny and James were driving them north from the Oregon Trail after buying the often-starving animals on the cheap from weary travelers. The Grants would fatten up the cows on Montana grass and then trade the next season’s emigrants one healthy animal for two skinny ones.

By the early 1860s the Grants had been joined by other ranchers taking advantage of the free grass of the open range. In 1862 the first major gold strike in Montana took place in the upper reaches of the same Beaverhead country the Grants had grazed cattle in, on Grasshopper Creek, where the boomtown of Bannack, Montana’s first territorial capital, sprang up. Grant and his sons were operating ranches in the Deer Lodge Valley northeast of Bannack by that same year. Prospectors like future Treasure State capitalist Con Kohrs took advantage of the situation; buying, butchering, and selling the already-present beef to miners was easier and more profitable than being one. Kohrs moved on to ranching himself, buying Johnny Grant’s Deer Lodge Valley spread in 1865, and taking aim at the lush grasses of Big Sky Country east of the mountains, where he and a few other Montana-based ranchers were soon grazing large herds (The Grant-Kohrs Ranch in the Deer Lodge Valley is a popular Montana tourist stop where visitors can see and experience 19th-century ranching).

The beef industry caught on in a big way in Montana. Though Nelson Story’s initial Gallatin Valley herd was also the first herd of Texas longhorns trailed up the long drive to Montana cattle country, Texans and other out-of-state operators joined the great open range boom of the 1880s. Cows by the tens of thousands were soon grazing on the eastern Montana plains that had fed the now-slaughtered bison herds for centuries, and the stage was set for disaster.

The winter of 1885-86 was much like many of our recent winters in Montana; it was warm, dry, and snow-free on the open range. A hot summer followed, the fall grasses were poor and overgrazed, and the cattle showed it. A poor cattle market with low beef prices that season kept steers on the range, but new cattle continued to arrive in droves on the Montana plains, as ranchers tried to hop on the open range bandwagon.

“Our ranges are already bare, or so nearly so that our stock is in poor condition for the winter…” Montana’s territorial governor, Samuel Hauser, wrote to the Secretary of the Interior. “…should it prove long and severe great loss must inevitably follow.” Hauser’s worries, noted in Montana: A History of Two Centuries, (written by Richard Roeder and a former president of MSU, the late Michael Malone), were about to prove true, for the winter of 1886-87 was, in more recent vernacular, a bitch.

That November, winter began in earnest; Chinook winds melted the snow somewhat in January, but a long cold spell set in that locked the country in ice, also locking up any remaining forage. Another bout of Chinook winds didn’t occur until March, when the warm breezes revealed over a quarter of a million cattle carcasses littered across the Montana plains and valleys. From 60 to 70 percent of the herds were wiped out, and the days of open range cattle ranching on the northern plains were essentially through. Famed Montana artist Charlie Russell, working as a wrangler on a central Montana ranch that winter, recorded one impression of that brutal season on a postcard for a friend, calling the small painting (a gaunt cow in the company of hungry wolves) “Waiting for a Chinook.”

The Gallatin Valley didn’t escape the ravages of that hard winter. Though the losses were not as epic as on the plains, area ranchers were also hard-hit, like the British horse breeders who fled to Canada with their animals after taking stock of their losses.

When people flee north to Canada to escape winter, something’s up. Though a few large cattle operations continued to run large herds on the plains, the boom days of the open range ended that winter. Montana ranchers adapted, running smaller cattle operations, and growing hay for winter feed. Sheep, which had survived the winter of ‘86-’87 much better than the cows did, took over much of the open range until the turn of the century. Montana had around six million head of woolies roaming the eastern plains of the state by 1900.

By 1910, homesteaders took the place of the free-roaming cattle and sheep on the state’s eastern plains. Done in first by snow and then by spade, open range ranching in Montana passed into history.

La Nina in Montana

One hundred and ten years after the record-breaking, tough winter of 1886-’87, Montana experienced its last “real” winter, and the weather occurrence known as La Nina may be the culprit in both cases.

The winter of 1996-97 also broke records, with heavy snowfalls that left skiers and snowboarders salivating, but also brought some bone-chilling temperatures: on Christmas morning, the temperature hovered around zero in Bozeman, and two feet of fresh snow buried cars and made streets impassable. When spring finally rolled around, flooding made Albertson’s parking lot a lake and N. Rouse a rolling stream. Many local rivers set new high water records, like the Yellowstone, which rose nearly three feet above flood stage, cresting a quarter-inch below 11 feet and making the river a half-mile wide in many Park County stretches for days. Hardcore kayakers and rafters were delighted, but property owners weren’t.

Blame it on La Nina, the term scientists use to describe a cooling trend in the waters of the southern Pacific Ocean which affects weather worldwide. La Nina and its opposite sister, El Nino, which causes a warming of the southern ocean waters, began to be studied by scientists studying weather patterns in the 1980s. According to researchers, weather changes during La Nina seasons usually occur during the transition between fall and winter, essentially during the holiday season, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. During all the La Nina seasons researched, temperatures went from well above average to normal or below during the transition, accompanied by above-normal precipitation.

Coincidentally, the harsh winter of 1886-’87 is also the first scientifically recorded (using available data) La Nina episode, although the native peoples of Chile, Bolivia, and Peru have observed and remembered La Nina and El Nino occurrences for centuries. The winter of 1996-97 was the last time La Nina played with the weather and brought real winter to Montana. What does this winter hold for us?