For Bobby Gilbank, 70, the end is near. As his job as a summer range rider for Wyoming’s Upper Green River Cattle Association comes to an end, the question that has pestered him all season is clanking around in his head: Is this his last summer cowboying in the mountains?
Perhaps he is tired from the season or his back hurts from a recent horse wreck. Or maybe he is aggravated by a writer’s pesky questions that have caused him to think about his own question. Whatever the reason, the usually chatty Gilbank sulls up like a blowfish. His life is uninteresting to others, he says, and not worth writing about. He has nothing more to say. His walrus mustache falls still, and he shuffles off to saddle one of his three red roan Quarter Horses and to push the last of several hundred head out toward their long trek down from the summer range.
The smoke from forest fires that have shrouded the Wind River Range all summer hangs like fog and renders the nearby peaks invisible. A rider could peer as far as possible through the smoke across the expanse of the rolling sage meadows and think he was down in the valley instead of 8,000 feet high near the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Soon winter will bury the entire grazing allotment in snow. Without a word, Gilbank pulls down his sweat-stained hat, which has slumped into its own shape, and rides off, pushing the cows and bulls several miles along the spine of the Rocky Mountains toward a gate that leads to the next pasture, another area measured by square miles. Once the last head passes through that gate, his job is done.
Gilbank arrived in this country twelve years ago after selling his small farm in Michigan. The farm became unprofitable, he says, as the economics of agriculture began to favor large operations. Having always loved horses—he had team roped much of his life—he headed west to pursue an age-old American dream, living the life of a working cowboy.
It didn’t take long for myth to give way to reality. In 1998 during his first year in Wyoming, his horse fell on the ice and spooked, dragging Gilbank for a quarter mile until his boot slipped off. It was still hanging in the stirrup when another cowboy caught the horse. Gilbank lay there in a heap bare-assed, his chaps gone, his shredded jeans around his ankles, and a hole in his head. Today he looks back and describes his job this way: “That job beat me a new asshole. The goddamned ground was a million miles down and harder than a son-of-a-bitch.”
But the life of an association cowboy suited him and he was good at his job, so after cowboying for day wages all winter, he returned every spring. He considered the long hours, the battle against the weather and predators, and the constant pressure to keep the public lands in good condition a small price to pay for working on horseback in one of the wildest and most scenic locations in the Lower 48. There’s nothing like living free and loose in this world.
However, low wages, the lack of a retirement plan, and age eventually intertwine like three strands of a rope and catch all working cowboys. This year inevitability closes in. If Gilbank is looking for arguments to help him decide whether or not to hang it up, he heard a persuasive one late this summer when his young horse, normally solid and sensible, bucked him off, adding an injured back to his two torn rotator cuffs. “I ain’t nothing but a broke up old man,” he says.
He is by far the oldest of the range riders, but age is unimportant compared to getting the job done. Rancher and association member Kent Price says the best range riders are the cowboy type with a good work ethic and a willingness to learn. But, he adds, here’s the part most prospective range riders underestimate—the loneliness. Most of them cannot handle the isolation. A range rider must be comfortable spending five months alone.
Like Gilbank, the other six range riders work their own sections alone with only occasional help. They furnish their own trucks, trailers, horses, and tack. June 1 to October 31, they earn a minimum of $1,400 a month and a $1,000 bonus for completing the season. Each rider is paid a $400 monthly vehicle allowance and is covered by Workers’ Compensation and unemployment insurance. Freedom and scenery are gratuities.
Each hand must manage his or her section of the 127,000-acre permit area inside the Bridger-Teton and Shoshone National Forests. For ten days to three weeks every spring the ranchers drive 5,000 head of cattle into the mountains. The drive, know as the Green River Drift, began in 1916. Before the cattle arrive, range riders work raising and mending fences.
Once the stock arrive, riders manage their part of the herd so that the cattle do not damage the national forests. According to Murdoch Cattle Company ranch manager Coke Landers, this task is the range riders’ most important job duty. So they ride constantly, big loops and small, to keep the stock moving and out of the high-traffic spots such as the riparian areas along the creeks.
Of course, caring for the cattle is the main job. If a cow, calf, bull, or yearling is ill or injured, the range rider must doctor it alone either by roping or tranquilizing it. Gilbank doesn’t like the tranquilizer gun. The process isn’t as easy as one might think, he says. An animal rarely stands still while he rides up to dart it.
Out in this kind of open country absent a corral and headcatch, a hand works old school. Although not all the range riders rope, most of them do—and we’re not talking arena roping. In rugged range like this, the year might as well be 1860 before the wire. Whether they heel a calf, rope a bull or cow by the head and circle and trip it, roping is a critical skill. Other than perimeter fences, which can take three to four days to ride, fences do not exist out here for the purpose of working cattle. Cowboys need a fast horse to help catch an animal before it reaches the timber. Once it is caught, a cowboy must handle the situation himself or herself. This is not a job for dudes.
Every cowboy that has ever worked stock on public land has managed the land resource and cared for the cattle, but not all have contended with what in the last few years has become a job duty of increasing importance. These days dealing with grizzly bears and wolves consumes too much time and effort. Northwestern Wyoming is home to a high concentration of grizzlies and wolves. The populations of both species have increased rapidly. Lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, such as those in the Upper Green River area, have become ground zero for predator population increases and conflicts. The permittees of the Upper Green River Cattle Association ran their cattle in this location decades before it became a predator hot zone. But federal protection for the grizzly and wolf have led to increased populations and expanded range. The result is that range riders spend as much time managing predator conflicts as attending to the land and cattle’s health.
This summer Bobby Gilbank found the most kills: thirty carcasses, twenty of which were certified as being caused by grizzlies or wolves. He says two go unfound for every one he discovers. Rancher Kent Price puts the ratio at one carcass found for every 3.5 grizzly kills and one found for every seven wolf kills. Of course, animals die from sickness and injury, but over the years the data at season’s end has shown a marked increase in mortality that only predation can explain, for rates of disease and sickness have remained fairly constant.
This year, across all five camps the association lost $160,000 worth of cattle to grizzlies and wolves. If someone believes ranching on public lands is a license to get rich, this loss sounds small enough to absorb, but if that person understands the slim margins on which ranchers operate, he or she may realize a loss or two like this can drive cattlemen out of business.
For this reason, everywhere they ride range riders keep their eyes peeled. They ride toward any group of ravens and watch for nervous cattle huddling together. Sometimes they come up on a bleeding cow with bite marks on its neck or claw marks down its side. Good mamas, it turns out, risk their lives to protect their babies. Other times all riders find is a rotting carcass or a pile of bones.
Range riders listen. At night they can sometimes hear the wolves coming. When coyotes go to yipping to signal the wolves are near, cattle rumble together and mamas and babies bawl to find each other. When the attack is on, the stock bellow as if caught in a headcatch. An ungodly ruckus. Then as the herd moves away from the kill, the night goes silent again.
When range riders find a kill, they use a radiophone to contact the appropriate government agency to send out an investigator. If he confirms that a predator killed the animal, the rancher is compensated for that loss; but the association is not paid for undiscovered kills. For this reason it is crucial for range riders to locate as many as possible. In this type of wild country, the finding is not easy.
A range rider’s job requires short nights and long days of five-mile and twenty-five mile loops to manage and care for the cattle and land and to search for kills. On October 1, riders open all the gates. They begin clearing the cattle from their areas and pushing them off the mountain back to the cutting grounds where they are sorted for the drives to respective ranches. The Forest Service requires that all cattle be clear of the range by October 15, the date work turns to finding strays that may be hiding in any number of a thousand nooks and crannies. Then range riders close up camp and leave for whatever job will sustain them for the winter. Some riders—like Doc Foster—aren’t sure what they will do next.
Sometimes Foster, 52, cowboys in different places for the winter, but this year he wants to hang around Pinedale, the place he calls “one of the most down-home places there is.” The season has been his second as a range rider for the seven ranches that comprise the Upper Green River Cattle Association. Though he is relatively new to the job, he has worked all over the area and several places around the West. He knows the country. A rope of a man, Foster has steel eyes that gaze right through you. When conversation turns to cowboying he does not break eye contact or blink. He laughs and converses easily, unlike some other hands who aren't inclined to chatting. When prompted, he even philosophizes a bit and ponders why he continues to cowboy when it offers so few financial rewards. He thinks for a minute as if accustomed to taking his time, and then he says, “It’s all about seeing the country a-horseback. I love good horses, good country, and riding with a good crew.”
Once in his life Foster tried to work a non-cowboy job. He spent a whopping five months “making money hand over fist” in the oilfields but quit. “It wasn’t very romantic,” he says. Besides, years ago he had an epiphany that confirmed his direction in life. He was riding in the back of a pickup, which crashed and bucked him off, resulting in multiple injuries. While recuperating, life scrolled before him. He knew then that all he wanted was to see new country and work on horseback. He didn’t care to manage a ranch, didn’t want to build a business or run anything—just cowboy. “All I want is to be a good all-around hand and have good friends,” he says.
To Foster, being a good hand means “doing things the most efficient way.” Like other range riders, he spends his summer caring for cattle, tending public land, and dealing with predator-cattle conflicts, which he says these days takes up most of his time. This summer he located three confirmed bear kills and six wolf kills. Through experience and work with biologists skilled in predator forensics, he is learning how to identify the cause of a kill. He says a grizzly kills alone mostly by swatting with its paw and then picks up the animal by the head or nape of the neck, but wolves attack in a pack and focus on dragging the cattle down by the back and hindquarters. He says, “They are killers. They [wolves] eat the heart, liver, lungs, and then go on.” Of course, bears, coyotes, and birds clean up the rest, but hopefully not before Foster beats them to it. No evidence, no reimbursement.
Doing things efficiently applies especially to his horses. Like Gilbank, Foster rides quality papered Quarter Horses. He prefers the Smart Little Lena line, “cowy” horses quick enough to catch cattle before they reach the rough. “I’m a control freak,” he says. “Manners are not an option.” His horses must come to him, lower their heads for haltering and bridling, load well into the trailer, respond to the slightest cue, and work cattle almost without thinking. All of his horses pack salt, a task that builds a work ethic and keeps a horse humble. All of them must learn to push cattle that don’t want to be pushed. He has adopted a novel way of getting them to move. Several people have spotted Foster riding like a wild man through the sagebrush toward the cattle, a garbage bag flapping above his head like a flag. His method is necessary, he says, because the cattle are reluctant to move. Even after they get going, they walk a short distance and stop.
When he finishes training his horses, he sells them at ten to twelve years of age when they are so “broke to death” that either an eight or eighty-year-old can ride them. Each horse typically brings in $10,000-$15,000, a big payday and the largest source of his income; but the check comes after a nine-year time investment.
Foster’s use of well-bred horses differs from most other range riders, who mostly ride grade Quarter Horses, mustangs, or anything that can do a good job. Why would a cowboy risk using his top horses? What would happen if one injured itself or died on the job? This summer Foster found out.
One night a pack of wolves ran through and startled his three horses, which bolted. Wizard ran through some rocks and snapped his hind leg, and Foster had to shoot him. He was still reeling from the emotional and financial loss when another horse, Bob Dylan, ate something toxic. Foster did everything he could, even managed to trailer the horse down country and drop $1,500 at the vet’s office, but Bob Dylan died anyway. The cattle association does not reimburse its hands for dead horses or vet bills, so Foster was down to one. Absorbing a financial loss that will take at least a couple of seasons to recover, he seems disappointed but not dejected. He ponders his season in the mountains: the country’s beauty, the solitude, the area’s rich history, his gains and losses, and the wonder of it all. Then he paraphrases the 1970s rocker Bob Segar: “I’m older now but still riding against the wind.’”
Will Foster return next season? His answer comes quickly. “I left all my things in my cabin.”
Foster may be back, but Bobby Gilbank is still deciding. Hours after he started pushing the last cattle out of his pasture, he arrives at the gate and pushes the bunch through. The range riders in adjacent sections will push the stock through their areas until the ranchers take over and drive the herd home. The cattle that survive the winter will return next spring, calves in tow. Gilbank turns his horse toward his cabin at camp #5 and rides the several miles back through the sagebrush and smoke to the place that has become his summer home. The days are getting short now and the night temperatures cold. Soon the smoke will clear, the sky will turn light gray, and snow will make the mountains nearly impenetrable to horses or cattle. The missing stragglers that remain will die. Gilbank rides up to the cabin and dismounts. He enters, pours a cup full of stale coffee, and settles into his worn chair. No, he says, he is unlikely to return. “I’m getting pretty worn out. It’s getting to be one hell of a day’s work for an old man.”
Story Behind the Story...
This was one of my most difficult stories to report. The cowboys worked in rough, remote country high along the Continental Divide in Wyoming's Wind River Range. Several of the ranchers employing the cowboys were mistrusting and ornery. For the most part, they and their cowboys avoided me. To interview Bobby Gilbank, I camped hidden in the woods for two days to catch him. The roads took a bit of hide out of my truck. And I ran dangerously close to deadline trying to gather enough material, which Doc Foster's openness finally provided.