As the only son of an only son of Idaho ranchers stretching back to its territory days and a decade earlier in Utah, after 116 years, I was the end of that line.
Beginning in 1850, most had raised, trained and traded horses with only a few head of cattle for personal consumption, but some were in the cattle business.
But beginning in the 1870s, those raising horses also began adding herds of cattle they would sell commercially. By the time I came along, my parents raised mostly cattle and only a few horses, many to work the ranch but some purely for nostalgic reasons because of the famous genetic lines they symbolized.
In his incredible 1990s book entitled, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture, Jeremy Rifkin who writes and lectures on a broad range of economic, social and technological issues, reminds us that at one time what is known as Western Rangeland actually covered 40% of the continental United States.
It stretched up from that remarkable part of northwest Texas I traversed during a cross-country road-trip last month into Oklahoma and Kansas over across parts of New Mexico and Arizona, up across half of Colorado, into Wyoming and parts of Montana and the Dakotas, then west across parts of Idaho and most of eastern Oregon nipping a part of northern California.
We think of this as being the range for Buffalo, a bovine relative of cattle. But this rangeland, while perfectly suited, is just where vast herds of these feral creatures had been pushed by the 1840s when all of my ancestral lines headed into the Rockies.
But at one time the range of Plains Buffalo stretched to Durham, North Carolina where I concluded my career, and up to Anchorage where I had spent a decade in the 1980s prior to being drawn here.
Before he headed west to blaze a road over the Cumberland Gap into what is now Kentucky on behalf of the Transylvania Company, Daniel Boone worked for a month while being outfitted in what is now northern Durham County for its secretary William Johnston at his Little River store.
When Boone headed over the Blue Ridge Mountains, it was along trails previously blazed by Buffalo. Other Americans also followed further north in the Appalachians into the Ohio River Valley and then all the way to the Pacific along routes my pioneer ancestors followed.
My great-great grandfather, one of three ancestors on the vanguard wagon train heading west in 1847, was one of ten men assigned to hunt Buffalo along the way being careful not to take more than needed.
At the time, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana didn’t exist even as territories, and their destination was still part of Mexico. During the second month of that 1,100 mile trailblazing effort, they began to see seas of Buffalo in what is now west-central Nebraska.
Near what would become Gothenburg, one member wrote that “the prairie on both sides of the river is literally black with Buffalo.” Another wrote that it was as if “the face of the earth was alive and moving like the waves of the sea.”
There were days when they passed herds of Buffalo stretching for 20 or more miles.
Twenty years later, naturalists, based on range carrying capacity, estimated there were 60 million buffalo on the Western Range, a number experts now believe was closer to 30 to 40 million.
But in the 1860s after the Civil War, Wall Street colluded with the railroads, cattlemen and the U.S. Army to exterminate the Buffalo from the Western Range, replacing them with hundreds of thousands of head of cattle and scores of Native American people with cowboys.
All that tells me that my ancestors thought differently; that several were interpreters with Shoshone, Bannock, Paiute and Hopi and their policy to feed them rather than fight them. But by shifting more and more to cattle, they were obviously enablers.
Telling is that in 1864, Idaho’s territorial legislature became the first to pass laws protecting Buffalo, but it was already too late there.
By around 1880, 30-40 million Buffalo had been replaced on Western Rangeland by 600,000 cattle, and by 1879, Idaho ranchers alone had driven 100,000 head to railheads there for shipment.
But those same railroads brought settlers and the open range succumbed to barb-wire fencing by the 1880s. Ranchers had also saved 100 Buffalo from extinction.
Today there are about half a million head on non-public lands including those served as a beef alternative in restaurants such as Ted’s Montana Grill here in Durham, one of 44 across 16 states.
Bison meat is naturally lean, tender, and protein and nutrient rich. About 60,000 a year now make it to restaurants and stores, double since 2002.
Another 30,000 find sanctuary on public preserves including Yellowstone Park adjacent to our ancestral ranch.
This includes a herd of 350-500 on the National Bison Range set aside by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, and then populated with private funds. It’s northwest of Missoula, Montana at the base of the Bitterroots where they form the line with Idaho.
There are still about 15,000 Buffalo that conservationists estimate roam wild. There are 2,564 operations raising Buffalo commercially, bringing the number in the U.S. and Canada now to 340,000.
Nationwide, ranches like the one in Idaho where I was born and spent my early years now hold 87.99 million head of cattle, the fewest since I was a rising three year old in 1951.
Seventy-percent of the land area of the Intermountain West (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Utah) is still rangeland used for grazing livestock even though today it is for only for six months instead of the years it did when I was growing up.
It was only 12 years ago that there were only 50 grassfed cattle operations in the U.S, now there are thousands. Still, nearly all of our beef comes from cattle “finished,” a euphemism for fattened in feed lots.
While the feed-lot technique was pioneered in Chicago in 1876.
Before then fattening was done for only a week or two at the railhead to prepare them for the ardors of shipping. But then came refrigerated railcars and gradually the fattening was done not to compensate for weight loss during shipping but to make them fatter faster.
This took off very slowly though until veterinary antibiotics converged with federal policies during the Nixon administration to fuel corn and grain production in the early 1970s.
There is a feedlot in Idaho, just southeast of Boise that fattens 150,000 head of cattle at a time, a third more than was driven to railheads by my ancestors and others in an entire year in that state in 1879.
That company has another closer to Boise that holds 250,000 head but they don’t hold a candle those two in Amarillo, Texas that fatten 800,000 or one between Denver and Fort Collins that handles more than that alone.
The number of head in my native Idaho as of last year was up slightly to 2.3 million, while the number of head in my adopted home of North Carolina increased to 820,000.
This due in part to a trend back toward local family stock growers supplying local residents as well as locally-owned restaurants in foodie counties such as Durham with grass-fed beef.
But as, author, food journalist and son of the founder of Baskin-Robins, John Robbins details in his book entitled No Happy Cows: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Food Revolution, there are no easy solutions.