Cowboy Culture USA: Myths and Realities
Educated on the east coast, George W. Bush affects the aura of the west. Under a five-gallon hat, Bush greets world leaders at his 1600-acre ranch in Crawford, Texas. Sometimes in tall leather boots, he listens to briefings from his cabinet members. Last summer, Bush signed a law that celebrates the symbolism, designating an official Day of the American Cowboy. The bill was introduced by Senator Craig Thomas (R-WY), a rancher, who stated:
“Cowboys were not only integral in settling the West and laying the foundation for America as we know it, but they continue to play an important role in the fabric of our country. Their contributions enrich our communities, cultivate our businesses and strengthen our families every day. The American Cowboy represents those aspects of American life we hold dear: independence, freedom and responsibility. In Wyoming, the Cowboy is not only a legend of the Old West, but an important piece of everyday life. For these reasons, I introduced a resolution designating July 23, 2005, and July 22, 2006, as National Day of the American Cowboy. It is time for the American Cowboy to be recognized.”
Senator Thomas leaves out a few important realities. Today’s ranchers are not independent and responsible; they enjoy a constant flow of government largesse. By commemorating the history of ranching, this recognition trumpets a business that decimates the landscape, while siphoning land, money and resources from the people.
So let’s take some time to examine several of the myths perpetuated by the National Cowboy Day legislation. All of the statements examined here come directly from the resolution to designate the two days as “National Day of the American Cowboy.”
Myth: Pioneering men and women, recognized as cowboys, helped establish the American West.
Europeans pioneers did not establish the West; rather, they tamed the landscape and decimated the ecology that once thrived there. After driving Native Americans from their homes, settlers populated the land with the animals who had the misfortune to be bred and known as livestock. Cattle, sheep and other ruminants grazed on plant species to the point of extinction, trampled stream beds and the native species residing there, and exhausted many natural water sources. In order to ensure the safety of their stock, ranchers took to hunting and trapping predator species. Many of these free-living animals are endangered today.
Although ranches can be found in each of the 50 states, they became especially detrimental west of the Mississippi River, particularly in Nevada, California, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Oregon, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, and some parts of California.
As for the “men and women” rangers, the reality has not been a model of egalitarianism. Throughout pioneer history, we find men working on the range, while women are often missing from the history books. President Theodore Roosevelt praised the ranching culture because it “allowed men to return to a kind of primitive social unit.” 
Myth: The cowboy embodies honesty, integrity, courage, compassion, respect, a strong work ethic, and patriotism.
The image of the self-reliant, courageous cowboy pervades the work of many painters, photographers, songwriters, writers, filmmakers and actors. The cowboy usually looks like John Wayne; but historically those who tended the cattle were usually poorly paid African and Mexican laborers in the employ of wealthier ranch owners. And to this day, wealthy families run the ranches. Hotel giant Barron Hilton and Idaho billionaire J.R. Simplot are two of the wealthiest.
As owner of the company that provides fries for McDonald’s restaurants nationwide, Simplot has permits to graze on almost 2 million acres of land stretching through Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Hilton has a ranch that reaches about 500,000 acres throughout Nevada and the California line. Both Hilton and Simplot are part of the wealthy minority with leasing privileges over huge swaths of public land.
Yet despite their wealth, modern ranchers remain financially dependent on the government. Under a 1934 law, grazing allotments on public lands are leased for a small fee — well below the market price — to ranchers.
“We have cowboy socialism,” said Thomas Power, a Montana economist, in a 1999 interview with the San Jose Mercury News. “It’s a romantically based, phony attempt to protect something from the past that no longer exists.”
Myth: The cowboy spirit continues to infuse this country with its solid character, sound family values and good common sense.
The cowboy spirit infuses this country with massive and unsustainable projects that defy common sense. Ranchers lease approximately 300 million acres of public land from the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. The rate they pay for one animal unit month — that needed to sustain one cow and one calf per month — is $1.79. Lease revenues from ranchers do not generate enough cash to meet the administrative costs of these agencies. Thus, in 1998, the Bureau and the Forest Service lost a total of $94 million on grazing, spending $116 million and taking in only $22 million. Taxpayers also subsidize costly endeavors including fencing, irrigation and watershed projects, and flood mitigation to benefit the ranching industry.
The cowboy spirit infuses this country with a disproportionate influence in the Senate. The co-sponsors of Cowboy Day itself come from Western states; some are former ranchers. The Bureau of Land Management is organized by state offices, emphasizing state grazing interests. And, under recently passed amendments to the federal grazing rules, ranchers are poised to win still greater authority on local and state grazing boards, and may gain ownership of pipelines and water sources.
Myth: The cowboy loves, lives off of, and depends on the land and its creatures, and is an excellent steward, protecting and enhancing the environment.
On the contiguous land mass of the United States, it is ranching that uses the bulk of water and space to maintain the animals it treats only as chattel.
Ranchers divert water from rivers to grow crops and feed the animals they breed into existence as future food. These “excellent stewards” are the people who often leave free-living aquatic animals stranded in dehydrated areas.
It’s hardly an enhancement to the environment to soak up the river ecology on which some 80 percent of all wild animals in the West depend, or to send cattle out to pollute streams with manure. Methane, which is largely produced by the digestive processes of ruminant domesticated animals, is one of the leading causes of global warming.
Myth: To recognize the American cowboy is to acknowledge America’s ongoing commitment to an esteemed and enduring code of conduct.
The rancher’s code of conduct is probably not held in high esteem by wolves, bears, coyotes and mountain lions — but then, those animals are hardly around anymore to ask. Between 2002 and 2004, Wildlife Services — federal agents with the U.S. Department of Agriculture — killed 1,686 mountain lions in the western states at the behest of ranchers. In 2000, ranchers on public lands accounted for about $4 million of the agency’s costs. The decimation of natural predators eventually leads to the rationale for killing, rounding up or using contraception on prey species, which are said to overpopulate the land — usually meaning that they get in the cattle-grazers’ way.
Consider the plight of wild horses and burros. Because they cannot legally be hunted, about 25,000 wild horses and burros currently wait in long-term holding, simply to make room for an ever-burgeoning cattle industry. Others are privatized in adoption schemes. Because of an appropriations amendment introduced in 2004 by wealthy Montana Senator Conrad Burns, some end up in slaughterhouses.
Trampling and feeding by cattle also endangers species of the West directly. Species endangered by grazing include the Mexican spotted owl, the Pacific salmon, the Red-legged frog and Desert tortoise.
Myth: The cowboy continues to play a significant role in America’s culture and economy… Ongoing contributions made by cowboys to their communities should be recognized and encouraged.
Ranchers on public lands are not mainstays of their local economies. A single casino in Las Vegas employs more people than the number working in agriculture in the entire state.
While ranchers in some states have a higher economic influence, they do not provide substantial employment to western economies. According to a 1994 report issued by the Department of the Interior, “The elimination of all public lands livestock grazing would result in a loss of 18,300 jobs in agriculture and related industries across the entire West, or approximately 0.1 percent of the West’s total employment.”
Rodeo is the sixth most-watched sport in America.
That might be accurate, but it’s hardly a reason for a national day of ceremony. Although not all ranchers are related to rodeos, these events symbolize the disregard for life inherent in the cattle industry itself. The rodeo’s action depends on roping young animals and agitating horses and bulls to force them to buck frantically for the amusement of the crowd. Injuries to the animals range from bruises and broken bones to paralysis, severed tracheas, and death. Stressful transport and multiple performances in the heat of summer is common. Many of the animals eventually end up at slaughterhouses.
But even if those who run rodeos could do so without any obvious cruelty — and many organizers, of course, claim that the rodeo avoids techniques that would harm its animals — the idea would be no more worthy of commemoration. The overall image is that of a humanity that conquers rather than reveres other conscious life.
The cowboy is an American icon.
The Cowboy should not be chosen to represent a country which, in theory, is based on sound democratic principles. Nor should society accept as its symbol one so willing to exhibit disrespect for life and the environment. In order preserve natural biodiversity and sustain ecological systems, we must stop romanticizing the cowboy, and we must address society’s demand for beef and the products ranchers produce.
As George Wuerthner states in Welfare Ranching, “Not only does livestock production require manipulation of the landscape, the larger myth of the cowboy assumes that nature should and must be directed and managed. Wilderness, the organisms that dwell there, and evolutionary processes such as wildfire, weather, and predation are jeopardized directly or indirectly, by such attempts to turn the land to strictly human purposes.”
It’s the duty of legislators to advance policies which respect democratic principles. And it’s incumbent upon humanity to foster respect for the evolutionary wisdom of our natural world, and seek to live in harmony rather than at odds with that wisdom. The National Day of the American Cowboy does neither.
- Donahue, Debra, The Western Range Revisited: Removing Livestock from Public Lands to Conserve Native Biodiversity( 1999). P. 89 quoting Roosevelt, Ranch-Life and the Hunting Trail.
- Wuerthner, George, Welfare Ranching, (2002). P.28 quoting R.V Hines, The American West: An Interpretive History.
- Paul Rogers and Jennifer LaFleur, “Cash Cow: Tax Dollars Still Support a Wild West Holdover that Enriches Big Ranchers and Degrades the Land,” San Jose Mercury News, (7 Nov. 1999). Article says federal records show that “the top ten percent of grazing-permit holders control 65 percent of all livestock on BLM property.”
- Bureau of Land Management, New Releases (2005), blm.gov.
- Moskowitz, Karen, MBA and Chuck Romaniello, MS Agricultural Economics, “Assessing the Full Cost of the Federal Grazing Program,” (Oct. 2002). The report, which is drawn from federal audits, estimates that grazing on public lands costs the federal government more than $128 million annually.
- Legislators co-sponsoring the bill come from states including, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, Idaho, and Colorado. S. Res. 85, Introduced by Sen. Craig Thomas (WY) (2005).
- The Bureau of Land Management, “Revisions to Grazing Regulations for Public Lands,” (June 2005). For more information on these changes please read “Rangeland Rules: A New Menace for Horses on Public Lands,” published in the Fall 2005 edition of Action Line.
- U.S. Dept. of Energy, Energy Information Administration, "Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2003," Report #: DOE/EIA-0573 (2003) (released Dec. 13, 2004)
- USDA Wildlife Services “PDR 10, Number of Animals Killed and Methods Used By the WS Program” (Fiscal Years 2000-2004), aphis.usda.gov/ws
- Report: “Assessing the Full Cost of the Federal Grazing Program,” quoting Audit of the USDA animal damage control program, Predator Defense Institute, http://pdi.enviroweb.org/audit.htm (2000).
- Statistics drawn from attendance at the National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board Meeting, Washington, DC, (6 Nov. 2005).
- Moskowitz and Romaniello, “Assessing the Full Cost of the Federal Grazing Program,” (2002).