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Wyoming picture
Wyoming picture

Completion of the rail lines encouraged cattle ranching in Wyoming by providing access to Eastern markets. During the late 1860s and continuing well into the 1880s, hundreds of cattle ranchers drove their herds from Texas to Wyoming to winter on the public lands before being shipped to market. In 1873 livestock owners established the Stock Association of Laramie County to organize the industry and protect their common interests, including reducing freight rates and promoting settlement of the territory. They also organized a cooperative spring roundup and established rules for identifying and branding calves. By 1879 this group had become a territory-wide organization called the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. A number of its members were wealthy absentee owners who lived in other states or in foreign countries and who visited Wyoming seasonally, if at all. The association’s power became so great that it could usually enforce its interests at will. Through the association’s lobbying, in 1884 the territorial legislature passed laws giving the association ownership of all unbranded cattle found during the spring roundup.

As the cattle industry expanded, a number of efforts were made by the U.S. government to regulate the use of public land in Wyoming. Large cattle herds required an enormous expanse of land to survive, much more than the 453 hectares (1,120 acres) to which a rancher was entitled by homesteader legislation. In 1879 and 1880 the United States Public Lands Commission proposed that Wyoming ranchers pay five cents an acre for a title to the lands they were using or that they obtain 25-year leases at half a cent per acre per year. Association members voted to maintain the status quo.

Some ranchers requested that their ranch hands file for free homestead land and that they deed it over to their employers.

Many individuals did indeed file for property but started their own ranches. The association was opposed to competition from small ranchers and prohibited them from working on the large ranches and owning their own cattle. Small ranchers were denied membership to the association and some were accused of stealing cattle. The cattle industry reached its height on the open ranges in the middle of the 1880s. An estimated one million cattle grazed the rich grass on the public land, resulting in severe overgrazing. A drought during the summer of 1886 parched the range and the unusually severe winter that followed caused staggering losses among many of the large open-range cattle operations. The severe weather, combined with declining prices in a saturated market for beef, caused a disaster in the cattle industry at the end of the 1880s. Many owners were forced out of business, and cattle ranchers began to move their herds from the overstocked open-range to fenced-in ranches on which they raised hay and other feed crops as insurance against drought and blizzards.

Although cattle grazing dominated the ranges in territorial Wyoming, sheep were also introduced to the region in 1857. Though some cattle ranchers opposed raising sheep on the open range because they believed that sheep grazed too close to the ground and ruined the pastures for cattle, sheep raising continued to expand. By 1910 an estimated six million sheep were raised in Wyoming. Occasional conflicts between sheep and cattle ranchers led to violence. One instance, known as the Spring Creek Raid in Washakie County in 1911 resulted in the deaths of three sheep ranchers and the conviction of several cowboys for murder. Eventually, cattle and sheep coexisted on the range as ranchers learned that the animals could be raised economically on the same ranch. "Wyoming" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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