Cattle Ranching in Jackson Hole

As early as 1884 cattle ranching began in the valley. As the homesteaders quickly discovered, their location wasn’t well suited for cultivating large surpluses of grain to sell. Once again, geography plays an important role. Most western cattle ranches were made up of thousands of acres of grazing. These were where the cowboys worked, often being away for weeks at a time to oversee the herds.
In Jackson Hole, this imagery was romanticized, as the valley began to bill itself as the “last of the old west.” When in truth, it was one of the last places in the old west to be settled. The geography that prevented homestead development in the valley also prevented cattle ranching from being as widespread as it was in the rest of the west. Here in the valley ranching operations were very small, often 10-20 cows per homestead. They were confined by the homestead acts, to one application for each act. If an individual was fortunate enough to have adjacent tracts available that fell under one of the other acts there was a chance to expand your land. Most made due with 160 acres, but adding an additional 160 under the Desert Land Act was also a common occurrence.
Jackson Hole winters were long and hard. This meant the ranchers had to provide shelter and winter feed for their cattle. This also included sheltering and feeding the horses that helped to plow the fields. Resources were often spread thin, and it was a yearly struggle to prepare for the winter months. It was incredibly hard work, but many were successful in that their modest ranches were also manageable. The smaller herds meant that it cost less to maintain and some were even able to sell surplus grain to the markets in Idaho. Others who weren’t able to accomplish this had to find the cash to purchase hay to survive the winter.

Fish Creek Wolf Association
Formed to remove a perceived threat of wolves on livestock and game animals. The association hired men to hunt wolves and offered rewards for each wolf killed. $62 for females, $52 for males and $22 for pups. By 1930, the wolves were removed from the valley. This was just three years after Olaus Murie arrived in town in 1927 to begin looking into the Elk problem.

Intended to keep animals in and out, there were a few different types used by homesteaders and ranchers.
Buck-Rail: The original type of fencing constructed in the valley due to the abundance of lodgepole pine as a building material. In the early years before 1900, building supplies were sparse. The mountain passes were still primitive at best, and extremely dangerous to traverse. It would take almost 20 years before a reliable route was constructed and widened for wagons. As a result, the buck-rail fence was the best solution to fencing. Not because of the difficulty to drive fence posts into the ground, but simply because other, better materials weren’t available in the vast quantities required. Miles of fencing was included on many homestead applications.
Barbed Wire: In 1900, this material became available in the valley mostly in thanks to Charles “Pap” Deloney who had begun operating a mercantile near the newly named Jackson Post Office. He began providing the valley with valuable supplies, many of which were previously prohibitively expensive.
The barbed wire fence was much easier to construct, driving post holes into the ground every couple feet and stringing the wire between them. The new easy fencing would prove to be troublesome in the beginning. Wildlife attempting to cross these man-made boundaries would often become tangled and injured. The ranchers recognized the need for the wildlife to be able to pass safely and made some adjustments.
Post & Wire: This fence can be seen today at the Elk Ranch. The same style and design as the barbed wire, the post and wire included some improvements. A wooden top rail was added, to allow wildlife to pass over the fence smoothly. The lowest wire is raised and often un-barbed to allow smaller ungulates and mammals to pass under the fencing without being caught.

Federal Government
Despite the decades-long controversy over the establishment of the Grand Teton National Park, the residents of the valley weren’t always so hostile towards the federal government. One of the best ways to earn extra cash was to accept jobs with the Forest Service, Reclamation Service, Biological Survey and later Fish & Wildlife. These were hired positions, but often independently managed. Men would serve the amount of time for the amount of cash they needed. There weren’t any requirements for hours, so many enjoyed the option to pick days when less work was required on the ranch.
They readily accepted these positions as a way to protect their livelihoods and economic interests by helping to protect un-occupied areas. They also wanted to manage the over-hunting and trapping of elk and beaver. The valley on a whole saw the elk as their most important economic interest, as they brought in valuable income from guided hunting trips. This view would eventually contribute to the “elk problem” in the 1920s.

World War I
From 1914 to 1918, the demand for beef steadily raised as supplies were being collected for the war effort. In 1917 the United States joined the war, and there was an even bigger demand to support the US troops overseas. Calf prices started rising, and ranchers were making a good profit on their herds. Ranch sizes were still modest, with 20 cattle being on the higher end for most homesteads. Others like Si Ferrin at the Elk Ranch were able to purchase adjoining parcels to create a very large presence on the land. He was able to sign a lucrative contract to provide beef to the Reclamation Service rebuilding the dam at Moran. This meant war effort or not, he had a steady source of income.

In 1910 there was a homesteading boom in the valley and a lot of the previously public lands used for grazing were now in private ownership. While beef was the valley’s only true economic export, cattle ranching would never achieve the status it did elsewhere in the west. At the end of World War I in 1918, the calf prices dropped considerably. There was no longer such a demand for beef and this combined with the severe drought of 1919 put many ranchers in the red financially.

Also see: Homesteading, Dude Ranching, Tourism, and Snake River Land Company

Text by Samantha Ford, Director of Historical Research and Outreach