By Bethany Kelly
Transhumance – the practice of seasonally moving livestock from winter pastures in the lowlands to summer grazing in the mountains – is an ancient intangible and cultural tradition practiced all over the world. Also known as pastoralism, the term usually invokes quaint and idyllic images of sheepherders in the European Alps or Pyrenees Mountains and not Wyoming cowboys, but the term is applicable to both. Cowboys from the Upper Green River Cattle Association have moved their herds by horseback along the Green River Driftfor over one hundred and twenty years. Although the practice is not as oldin Wyoming as many European countries, transhumance in Wyoming is equally invaluable to the landscapes, the livelihoods, and the cultural traditions of the American West. Traditional transhumance is also an inherently environmentally sustainable practice and necessary for the continued health of mountain forests and marginal use lands.
Beginning at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allotments on the Little Colorado Desert or the Mesa in Sublette County, Wyoming and ending at U.S. Forest Service allotments in the Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF), the Green River Drift– established in 1896 – is the oldest continual use cattle corridor in the United States. The Drift is the first ranching related listing on the National Historic Register as a Traditional Cultural Property; it was listed in 2013.
Every May, cattle are moved from their spring grazing on the high desert BLM land of the Upper Green River Valley along smaller trails – known as spur lines – to the main trail at Middle Mesa Wall. From here, cowboys push livestock nearly sixty miles north along the Green River and the New Fork River. After passing over private properties and land managed by the BLM, U.S. Forrest Service, and the State of Wyoming, the herds reach their summer grazing on the Upper Green River Cattle Allotment – a 127,000-acre U.S. Forest Service allotment in BTNF. The trip takes three to four weeks to complete. Cattle will graze on the BTNF until the middle of October. When the weather begins getting markedly colder, the cattle will “drift” – or naturally migrate – back down south along the route they traversed in the early summer. Cowboys round up the strays and return the herds to the ranches for winter.
The Drift consists of both natural and man-made elements. In some places the topography of the land funnels livestock along the route; creeks and man-made reservoirs provide water; roads, underpasses, and bridges ensure safe passage over rivers and roadways. The corridor follows a large ungulate seasonal migration route as well and crosses through “Trapper’s Point”– a section of a 7000-year-old migratory route used by pronghorn and mule deer and containing several archeological sites.
Transhumance and Sustainability on the Drift
Like its European counterparts, transhumance on the Green River Drift is under threat. Encroachment from oil and gas production and rural sprawl gradually squeeze the corridor tighter. Agricultural homogenization makes smaller scale, traditional beef production more expensive. Federal changes in land use prioritization are a constant threat. And climate changealters the rangeland. Finally, ranching families depend upon one another, but as more ranches are sold and subdivided, the number of families pushing cattle up the Drift decreases and endangers the sustainability of transhumance in the Green River Basin (more on the challenges of Western transhumance here).
The disappearance of transhumance has a wide range of potential ramifications. While beef production – even organic, grass-fed beefproduction – has rightfully become increasingly scrutinized for its deleterious environmental impacts, cattle raised on mountain pastures and marginal use lands are different than traditional grass-fed livestock; they are environmentally beneficial. Among other things, mountain cattle herds increase forest biodiversity and help prevent forest fires and soil erosion. Studies done on European transhumancehave found that the overall health of forests drop when livestock are removed. Finally, cattle corridors often run along the same trails as other migratory animals; when we preserve the corridor for seasonal livestock use, by extension, we are also preserving it for migratory wildlife.
As climate change accelerates and the world faces greater and greater environmental consequences as a result, traditional intangible and cultural practices – such as transhumance – might provide a roadmap towards an environmentally sustainable future. But only if we can keep them. So, next time you are driving through the Rockies and you see a herd of cattle remember that those lovely beasts and the cowboys that drove them there are producing environmentally sustainable beef products, maintaining the health of the forest, protecting migratory routes for large ungulates, and – if they are cattle from the Upper Green River Cattle Association – preserving over a hundred years of western intangible and cultural heritage.
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Bethany Kelly is a pursuing a Master’s in Cultural Heritage Management from Johns Hopkins University. Raised in Cody, Wyoming and currently living in Cheyenne, she holds a BA in History from the University of Wyoming. She is interested in the sustainability and preservation of large working Western landscapes.