Utah’s livestock industry developed along lines recognizably different from those of many western states, but it still has acquired characteristics that clearly make it part of the western livestock tradition. Factors that influenced this development at the outset included natural conditions and the timing and nature of settlement. Isolated by the great canyons of the Colorado River to the south, Utah was not heavily influenced by Hispanic and Texas ranching customs or livestock until after 1880. By way of contrast, however, Utah lay in the main road of the central overland migration. The earliest Mormons brought with them Midwestern husbandry practices as well as animals. Thus, Midwestern stock bloodlines and culture dominated Utah’s earliest livestock industry.
Nevertheless, distinctive Utah livestock practices evolved quickly. Fencing was lacking and community herds and grounds became common. At first, rangeland was abundant and little effort was made to lay formal claim to it. Later, the territorial legislature granted vast tracts to prominent Mormon leaders. Only a few of these were translated into actual titles, but they did provide the basis for the first range practices.
Mormon herds multiplied quickly and animals continued to be imported from other states, and by 1860 Utah was a livestock region of some importance. A few individuals, including Salt Lake City’s William Jennings, parlayed commerce, freighting, and slaughter of animals for local markets into sizable fortunes. Others like Alexander Topance and Ben Heywood traded for large herds, which they then drove to both Midwest and California markets.
However, Utah was in no sense a ranch country in the pre-railroad era. Its livestock industry had been shaped by the Mormon penchant for cooperation and group life. People lived in towns, farmed small farms, and ran a few cows and sheep. These animals were fed on the farm or grazed on town lands or were part of co-op herds. The nearest thing to ranches were the herd houses which dotted outlying parts of the central valleys. The difference between farm stock and range stock was blurred. Mountain ranges for grazing were used first by town sheep pools and summer dairies staffed by women and children. Although cooperation was common in the cattle industry throughout the West, Mormon pools differed in the great number of farm-based owners and the small number of animals owned by each operator.
By the late 1870s a distinctive village livestock industry was firmly established in Utah’s central mountain valleys. At this point the long-horned cattle and Hispanic traditions of the “Texas Invasion” finally began to penetrate into Utah, superimposing ranching patterns upon the well-established customs of the village-based livestock industry.
To some degree, this change was reflected in growing livestock numbers. The upswing began first in cattle, which in 1885 numbered about 200,000. This number increased to 356,600 in 1895. Thereafter, pressured by sheep and by adverse weather and markets, cattle numbers barely held their own until 1905. Encouraged by Forest Service policy, they then increased to about 412,000 in 1910 and to 505,000 by the end of World War I.
After slow beginnings, sheep numbers also increased rapidly. By 1885 the territory supported one million head, and by 1890 about 1,500,000. By the turn of the century the tally skyrocketed to 3,818,000. In the decade that followed, with drought, slow markets, and Forest Service policy prompting the trend, the number declined to 2,740,000. Thereafter, sheep numbers held at about 2,500,000 for more than fifteen years.
During this period the livestock industry prospered. Prominent ranching families emerged throughout the state, towns grew, and the country filled up. Strategically placed towns like Nephi and Spanish Fork took on regional importance, and livestock were trailed out of the Great Basin portion of Utah onto the Colorado Plateau part of the state as well as into Arizona and other neighboring states. Particularly in the far corners of the territory, the expanding Utah livestock culture confronted the more general ranching frontier, as stockmen from surrounding areas extended their herds onto what were literally the last ranges available. In the northwest area of the state, Charles Crocker, Jr., son of the California railroad magnate, moved in tens of thousands of California-bred stock. Across the territory, friction between large and small ranchers in Wyoming extended into Brown’s Hole and the Uinta Basin, contributing to that area’s reputation as an outlaw haven. Also, the Arizona Strip was penetrated by far-ranging stockmen like B.F. Saunders. But the confrontation between the pioneer Utah livestock culture and the broader frontier ways was perhaps most apparent in southeastern Utah’s San Juan County where the Mormons worked their stock in village pools and hung on while big outfits like the Carlisles, the Pittsburg Company, the L.C. Company, and the Elk outfit from Texas first took advantage of virgin ranges and then lost interest as the country was overgrazed. During this period, Utah cattlemen adapted husbandry practices developed in Mormon villages to ranching ways that originated in Texas and Mexico. The result was ranging practices unique in many ways to Utah but still a part of the broader ranching tradition.
The development of Utah’s grazing industry is also reflected in the growth of the sheep industry after 1890. Utah sheep management practices were, like those with cattle, in many respects a village development. It is significant point that by the year 1900 sheep were crowding cattle from many Utah ranges. The state’s “crossroads of the West” location had something to do with this, as hundreds of thousands of sheep trailed to and from neighboring states. Even more important was the fact that desert ranges for winter grazing were more abundant in Utah than were mountain pastures. In an era when range rights on the public domain were held only by customary use, this led to maximum stocking of desert winter ranges and heavy overstocking of summer ranges. Under these conditions of declining resources, sheep competed somewhat more efficiently than cattle. The sheep industry became important throughout the state and the Wool Grower’s Association became a potent economic and political power.
Farming towns along the Wasatch Front and Wasatch Plateau played an important role in this process. With more young people than the arable land and water would accommodate in farming and lacking other opportunities, they became sheep towns, serving as the hinges upon which grazing’s seasonal rhythms turned as sheep trailed from desert to mountain and back. In time, sheepmen like Mt. Pleasant’s John H. Seely became widely known, developing fine purebred lines as well as grazing practices that attracted wide attention. Gifford Pinchot employed W.C. Clos, Seely’s range manager, in developing Forest Service grazing policy. Sheepmen were also ably represented politically by powerful senators George Sutherland and Reed Smoot.
Utah’s livestock industry also contributed to range overgrazing and erosion problems that worsened until at least the end of World War II. This dilemma was first hinted at in the 1860s when Mormon Apostle Orson Hyde reported that Sanpete County ranges were already “destitute of grass,” which was either eaten or tramped out, and was often replaced by “desert weed.” By the time the transcontinental railroad arrived, observers blamed sheep for the short grass supplies near Ogden, and by the mid-1880s Mountain Meadows was transformed from a verdant grassland to a gully-cut sagebrush plateau. By 1910 Sanpete Valley towns were suffering regular floods from ranges stripped of ground cover, a problem that had extended to the Wasatch Front by 1930. In few parts of the West was erosion more severe. Through erosion control projects and the increased control of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, this process was reversed after 1950 as public lands clienteles broadened from the grazing interests that dominated their use earlier, and as the development of defense and service industries in Utah resulted in a general loss of overall importance for the grazing industry.
From the vantage point of 1990 it is obvious that a livestock culture indigenous to the more verdant East and Midwest was transplanted to one of the West’s most arid and fragile environments. It was modified in response to these conditions and for a time worked well. Then, with the advent of the Texas invasion after 1880, a more general ranging system developed, resulting in adaptations in ranching customs and in added pressure being put on the natural resources. Utah’s core villages lent themselves to the seasonal rhythms of summer and winter grazing, contributing to overuse of the public domain. Finally, it took many years to bring a grazing system based on village ownership into line with prudent resource utilization; the result was that Utah suffered heavy erosion problems in connection with its livestock industry. The state’s livestock industry has used its resources heavily, and at times the result has been costly. Although only a small number of people are now involved in the livestock industry, the population at large has a deep affinity for the heritage that livestock enterprise bequeathed to the state.