Waiting for a Chinook by Charles M. Russell

In the 1870s, beef business was good for a Montana rancher. Summers were cool, winters were mild, and grazing land was easy to come by out on the open range. With kind weather and plenty of forage, the cattle industry was prosperous well into the 1880s.

The Winter of 1886-1887 changed all that.

The Summer of ‘86 had been uncharacteristically hot and dry. Prairie fires were common that year, leaving grazing land scorched and water sources dried up.

Resources were made even harder to come by with the onset of winter. Animals that didn’t succumb to the winter’s subzero temperatures often starved to death, unable to graze beneath the snow. Montana sheep and cattle died by the thousands. Throughout the West, millions were dead by spring; ninety percent of the open range’s cattle lay rotting where they fell.

Those who had witnessed the “Great Die-up” (as it was called) reported carcasses as far as the eye could see. The whole industry was crippled by the loss, and many ranchers went bankrupt. Among those affected by the devastation was future president Teddy Roosevelt, who owned a ranch in Dakota Territory. In a letter he remarked, “Well, we have had a perfect smashup all through the cattle country of the northwest.”

In the years following the catastrophe, ranchers became more cautious. Herds were kept in fewer numbers, and farming operations became larger to ensure that animals could be fed. The cattle industry would not leave itself open to another disaster like the Winter of 1886-1887.

In effect, the open range era was no more.