The cowboy roaming horseback across the American West is nearly inextricable from what it means to be American. But in reality, most beef is raised out East where there’s more grass, and only a tiny fraction of the economy in the West comes from cattle. Now a new generation of ranchers is working to reinvent this iconic way of life to fit a modern world.



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[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]


Growing up in small-town Colorado, I was in complete awe of the cowboys in our midst. They exuded confidence… manliness…independence. They were the standard by which we all measured ourselves. Like Jake Heflin, my dad’s good old buddy…a horse trainer and for me, the quintessential cowboy, bowlegged and mostly toothless. Our families used to get together to play music. 


That’s Jake’s scratchy voice singing, and on harmony is his daughter, Judy. She tells me about how Jake followed the rodeo to Madison Square Garden…and even into Elvis movies as a stuntman. Those movies, um, not so politically correct

JUDY: During the 50s, they were making movies left and right, western movies. And he would always be some, like, wild Indian or something. 

MOM: He was the female lead. He played her. And he was in a dress and he jumped off of a cliff. 

ME: Did he jump off a cliff…?

JUDY: On a horse? Yeah.

ME: And there’s something about that image of Jake in a dress leaping off a cliff on a horse that tells you a lot about the myth of the cowboy. He’s a free spirit.

HOY: He’s called the Great Individualist. He is bound to no person, except his conscience. He does what’s right. Ideally.

ME: But like the cowboy in the dress, a whole lot of the cowboy mythos is a trick of the eye.  Make believe. Because we hardly ever see the sweat and tears of the real ranching life.

RATLIFF: But that whole idea of the romantic-ness of the ranch, you know, is probably what keeps people going and probably what, you know what doesn’t keep them there because it doesn’t turn out to be that romantic. It’s hard work. 

 ME: And there’s other misconceptions. For instance, did you know that in Wyoming – the so-called Cowboy State – ranching only accounts for 2 percent of the overall GDP? And all those livestock leases to graze on public lands?

JOSH: Public lands ranching provides less than 3% of the beef consumed in the United States. So it’s not as if this is a major market force driver for the beef industry overall, in the United States. 

ME: Yet we can’t shake it. It’s who we are. Go to any country in the world and wear a cowboy hat, some pointy boots, people know, ‘oh hey, they’re from the U. S. of A!’ But the more I dig into this myth, the squishier it gets.

From Wyoming Public Media and PRX, this is the Modern West…exploring the evolving identity of the American West. I’m Melodie Edwards.

ME: First of all, there’s the fact that the cowboy isn’t European to begin with. He originated with the Mexican vaquero. Poet Aaron Abeyta descended from people fleeing Spanish conquistadors. 

AARON: Think of the way that people were colonized, and the brutality of that colonization. How do you heal that? Right? Maybe you remove yourself from it, looking for a place that’s absent those things.

ME: Once European settlers appropriated the vaquero culture they took it deep into the Rocky Mountains…and brought their domesticated cattle with them. And that meant displacing the enormous herds of bison and the people who relied on them who were already roaming here.

BALDES: The plains looked like winter because of the number of bones that littered the prairie. So they collected those bones and put them on trains and they were shipped back East and made into fertilizer and fine china.

ME: To those early colonizers, replacing bison with the cow signified all things civilized. By growing the cattle industry, industrializing it, the goal was to offer the finest, most coveted food available – beef – to humanity worldwide. But that led to lots of problems, says animal welfare expert Temple Grandin.

GRANDIN: See, the thing about big… big is fragile. It’s fragile. 

OSHER: In the southwest in particular, overgrazing is one of the main reasons for species to be listed under the endangered species act. 

ME: But there’s a funny thing about those cowboys…they have a lot of courage and humility. They’ll put on a dress and ride a horse off a cliff. And they work hard. The great individualist is still very much alive and well in the west. And a new generation of ranchers is bound and determined to reinvent itself.

BRIDGER: Your soil is a little healthier, your grass is a little healthier, you don’t have that oxidizing grass anymore and it does show itself over time.

EPLER: These are some of the oldest surface water rights in the state of Wyoming, some of the oldest ranches, some of the most magnificent places you’ve ever seen that stand to be lost. And it makes me almost cry because I have seen them and I have been on them and I know what will be lost.

ME: …some are embracing their role as stewards of the land.

KIRKBRIDE: Really, in the bigger picture, I’m the caretaker here. And can I leave it as well or better as I found it? I think if I do, I’ve done well.

ME: This season of the Modern West we mingle among herds of wild bison…trek out to the desert to see the damage of overgrazing…witness the last of a historic sheep drive…and sit in the back of a courtroom as ranchers fight to protect the water cycle in an age of climate change. We’re calling it “The Great Individualist.” Coming to you every other Wednesday starting May 11th. Bring your cowboy hat…or not. In these parts, everyone has a right to be an individual.


The Great Individualist photography by Ana Paola Castro-Coupal

This season of The Modern West is sponsored by the LOR Foundation

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