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Another Endangered Species in the New West: Cowboys

At last week’s National Western Stock Show in Denver, a new endangered species was spotted by veteran observers: cowboys, mirroring the decline of cattle and pastureland in the West.

It’s no secret that the pastureland devoted to cattle in the West has declined in recent years: development, economics, government and environmentalism have all converged to cut down the area devoted to raising cattle. This, as well as the higher costs of raising cattle, has led to the lowest level of recorded cattle in the West since 1952, according to the Department of Agriculture. And with fewer cattle, there are fewer cowboys. From the New York Times:

At the stock show last week, generations of ranchers who come each January to showcase and sell their animals told of the marked changes they have had to make in recent years to maintain their livelihoods and traditions. Gone are the days when a cattleman could simply eyeball his herd to figure out which animals to breed; these days, cutting-edge genetic techniques are used to identify the strongest cattle and those requiring the least amount of grass.

“It’s a tough, rapidly changing business,” said Marshall Ernst, a cattle rancher from Windsor, Colo., who serves as senior director of livestock operations at the two-week stock show, which runs through Sunday. “Those who are not taking advantage of new technology or are resistant to change may not be able to survive.”

Finding good, knowledgeable cowboys has also become harder, as more people have moved to cities away from the rural communities that raised them, cattlemen here said. And these days, ranchers must spend considerably more money and time on marketing their cattle over the Internet to stay relevant and profitable.

A sharp rise in the cost of beef cattle prices isn’t necessarily helping things: it’s borne of low inventory, not necessarily a spike in demand. And the cowboy lifestyle isn’t for everyone, especially when there are economic alternatives in the New West:

Kyle Schnell, one of the few men in the crowd without a cowboy hat, watched the competition with his wife and two children. Mr. Schnell, 35, grew up on his family’s cattle ranch in western Nebraska. But at 17, he decided he wanted to do something different.

“Honestly, it was too much work,” he said with a grin. “I’m in the technology field. It’s a little easier than waking up at 4 in the morning and staying out until it’s dark.”

Photo by Randy Perliot, via

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