Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Cattle Ranchers Demand Limit Law on Sheep Grazing [otd 12/13]

On December 13, 1872, the Idaho Statesman (Boise) published a letter from pioneer J. H. Whitson, which said in part: “But the people of Ada county, and perhaps other counties need, ask for and demand a relief that is of much more importance than the retrenchment so much talked of. It is a law ‘Restricting the herding of sheep,’ as in Oneida county, passed by the last legislative Assembly.”

Sheep grazing, Dubois research station, Idaho.
U. S. Dept. of Agriculture.
Whitson then described the problems created when herders tried to have sheep and cattle share a piece of range: “There is room enough for all. But the range must be divided, and the rancher has a right to that nearest him; for no man in this country is ignorant of the fact that sheep will drive all other stock away.”

The state did finally pass the desired law three years later. The Act prohibited the grazing of sheep within two miles of a homestead (“possessory claim”) not belonging to the grazer. That first law applied only to Ada, Alturas, and Boise counties. In time, the legislature expanded the scope to more counties, and finally passed a statewide law in 1887.

The later statutes  – typically called “two mile limit” laws – became even more specific in that they excluded sheep from “any range usually occupied by any cattle grower, either as a spring, summer, or winter range for his cattle.”

The legal application turned on that word “usually.” Idaho courts generally accepted even one season of cattle grazing as defining the area as strictly cattle range. To give an appearance of fairness, judged did apply the same criteria to “customary” sheep range, but in most cases the cattlemen had arrived first anyway. Challenges to the constitutionality of these laws – in the Supreme Courts of Idaho and then the United States – repeatedly failed.

Eventually, the limit laws became moot. By around 1890, most of the available rangeland was claimed and market factors began to favor sheep products – wool plus meat – over cattle. Thus, many stockmen began raising sheep along with cattle, or abandoned cattle altogether.

In fact, sheep outnumbered cattle in the 1890 census, whereas cattle had outnumbered sheep by more than three to one ten years earlier. And the U. S. Agricultural Census for 1910 recorded over 3 million sheep in Idaho, versus less than a half million cattle. At that time, Idaho ranked sixth in U. S. wool production, despite being 44th in population.
Sheep and cattle on the same range.
Logan Farms, Manitoba, Canada.

Ironically, modern husbandry has shown that mixed cattle and sheep grazing can actually be more productive. This arises from the fact that the species prefer different forage plants: Cattle heavily favor grasses, while sheep are more likely to include broad-leaf non-grasses, called “forbs,” in their diet.

Today, it is not uncommon to find sheep or goats grazing alongside cattle. Pasturage is used more effectively and the ranch can diversify its markets. On the downside, more fencing may be required and the rancher must have the appropriate animal husbandry skills.
References: [B&W]
"Omaechevarria vs. State of Idaho, 246 U.S. 343 (1918), Omaechevarria vs. State of Idaho No. 102" U. S. Supreme Court, Washington, D.C. (March 18, 1918).
J. Orin Oliphant, On the Cattle Ranges of the Oregon Country, University of Washington Press, Seattle (1968).
John W. Walker, Linda Coffey, Tim Faller, “Improving Grazing Lands with Multi-Species Grazing,” Targeted Grazing: A natural approach to vegetation management and landscape enhancement, Karen Launchbaugh (Editor and Project Manager), American Sheep Industry Association (2006).
Idaho Statesman, Dec 17, 1872.

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