It all started as a joke while floating down the Missouri. Rendered speechless by the white sandstone cliffs that humbled the river, a cry of bewilderment broke the silence. “Cows!” Sure enough among all the cottonwoods and tucked between the breaks were herds of cattle. Mark, the BLM ranger we talked to before beginning our trip had warned us that ranchers had let their cattle back to the waters edge, now that tourist season was over. I guess they no longer had to pretend this landscape was pristine. I still never expected to see them every quarter mile. They must not have expected to see us either. Occasionally they got worked up at our appearance, making ungodly noises until we were out of sight. We joked that we had set the “cow alarm” off. It may just have been a provoked response to my constant whistling, Nico’s singing, or the fact that Ben furiously played his harmonica at them. Nonetheless the humor continued, narrating the life of the “Wild Cow” in an Australian accent and shouting Juggalo every time we saw a cow with a jet-black body and stark white face. To be honest I spotted cattle and joked about the ICP more than any other animal along those banks.
In fact, I have seen more cows than any other mammal since WRFI began. Cattle are the livelihood of this area. They dominate the landscape, a symbol of the West… But they aren’t even from here! Did you know they can’t be found in a single field guide of this area? I tried. If they weren’t so bloody well known we would have no way to identify them. Maybe their ability to stick out like a sore thumb here is why they’re so easy to make fun of in comparison to the other wildlife. But are we naïve in our ability to joke about them so carelessly? Some people say their presence fills the void left here by bison, but they leave behind a different footprint. Grazing down the land, damaging riparian areas, compressing the soil and fragmenting the land as ranchers fence off field after field. This is not a native relationship. But they can’t be blamed. Even I feel sorry for them, knowing they spend their last six months trapped in a feedlot in Nebraska.
The system is sick. Invading the land as homesteaders, introducing foreign species and then ripping them away when it is no longer ideal. Like the ICP the impacts we have overwhelmed this area with in the past 200 years are invasive. We can’t keep treating the land and the animals here as a joke. We need to adapt.