The jokey postcard depicting western Wyoming’s “rush hour traffic” as scores of mama cows and calves trodding the highway interspersed with cowboys and cowdogs comes true several times a year – and we are fully in the midst of the springtime version.
Having been in the front, middle and back of many cattle drives, large and small, from one end of Bondurant and on into the Hoback Canyon on Highway 191 lends me a bit of wisdom as well as advice for travelers who get caught up behind or between the cattle.
I’ve done my share of “flagging” too and see how drivers hate to slow down for just about anything. Flaggers waving orange plastic flags are posted behind and ahead of the lumbering moves that might cover miles down the highway.
Coming from behind, you’ll see an empty horse trailer pulled by a very slow-moving truck with flashers blinking. Many trailers aren’t equipped with flashers but the outfit’s 5-mile-an-hour speed should give you a clue there’s something worth noticing another quarter-mile or so up the highway.
Coming from the front, a flagger’s truck will be visible first, with an arm furiously waving the aforementioned “flag.” No, the driver isn’t trying to ruin your day. And the flag is not a symbolic cowboy road rage gesture – but running head-on into someone’s massive salivating bulls as they scrape hoofs and slip on pavement to prove their superiority might bring an emotional reaction.
If you see a flagger from either direction, it really helps to slow down and check things out. Highway curves that aren’t blind to oncoming traffic at 70 miles an hour in the other lane might hinder a driver’s braking time to cattle walking 65 miles an hour slower.
These cattle might take up the entire road or they might allow themselves to be pushed over to one lane – perhaps even along the grassy shoulder. There’s no guarantee they’ll stay in their own lane and passing is fine if it’s done slow and wide. If you’re not sure, someone on a horse will motion you through when it’s safe.
Cowdogs and little kids are typically too excited to see the dangers around them while they are working.
Fences along the highway are built and maintained by WYDOT, and quite a lot of territory there is “open range.” On “open range,” drivers are traveling at their own risk, just as homeowners who don’t fence out livestock are also at risk of damages. In other words, hitting a rancher’s livestock won’t necessarily require him to buy you a new car!
I’ve seen semi drivers plow through a herd without slowing but many more are courteous and aware their highways are “multiple-use” in certain places at certain times. Neighbors going to the Elkhorn or to cut firewood often stop their vehicles to chat – that can slow traffic for awhile. Travelers who have never seen a cattle drive often slow down to take pictures while their little dogs go crazy and seatbelted kids wave at a real cowboy or cowgirl.
As for multiple-use highways, there is sound reasoning for when and where you might encounter cattle (or other livestock but cattle are the largest) moving from one place to another.
Right now, calves are branded and moved with mamas away from their winter feedgrounds to new fields of grass, especially in May and June. As creatures of habit, cows get antsy for new spring grass and might decide the other side of the fence looks better.
Cows separated from their calves in the melee of a cattle drive often return to the last place they saw their baby, maybe by that cattleguard? Calves run away or sneak under fences because they don’t have their mama beside them. Often they get together on their own. Gates are often left open so mama and babe can reunite; leaving the gate the way it was is the best bet.
Summer grazing is almost always someplace different than where the livestock wintered. It might be permitted BLM or Forest Service allotments or a neighbor’s leased pastures. Wherever it is, it’s generally within a short day’s walk.
Throughout the summer in July and August, these pairs will be moved several times to rotate their grazing. Again – on or off the road – if you open a gate, close it behind you to keep cattle where they’re supposed to be. Inevitably this summer, people meaning well will call law enforcement to report “cattle on the highway.”
Then late summer gathers and fall roundups start in September and October as the air chills, bringing the cattle back up the highway to carry on the rest of their life cycles in their home ranch pastures.
Cattle drives are a different kind of animal migration but like wildlife, they take place depending on the seasons. Being prepared and respecting the cycles of our county’s ranching history might make the difference between annoyance or delight.