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The Great American Rancher

 As I watched the last one load this year, my heart actually hurt. The excitement of shipping - cattle buyers and truck drivers and your best hands and best dogs watching the fruit of a year's labor drive off as the sun rises - couldn't liven the soul this year. There will be no steak dinner tonight, no congratulatory round of drinks.

I glanced through our cows, their ears pricked forward as they watched the trucks rumble off. Calves bawling, they called the agonizing call. I recognize them. That one hides in the brush for three days when she calves, that one had hers in the freezing swamp water, those three jump fences like deer, and that one - she was just a calf herself when I first met her and we just loaded her second baby.

Across the kitchen table, over coffee this morning, my husband and I had the conversation that will likely take place in ranch kitchens all over the country this year. We're not ranchers anymore. And as I write this, I tear up a little and think if what will come. We'll watch the market and look for a time, as soon as possible, to get rid of our cows forever. There will be activity to help pass the time, preg testing and hauling hay and explaining to our banker that we might be a little late, a little short. Stay with us another year.

Maybe things have always been this way. Maybe the same conversations have taken place throughout the history of ranching. Maybe it has always been a questionable living at best. However, there are a few things I am certain have changed. This year, we can't find grass. Not even for twice the money we paid last year. There are no ranches left. This year, we can't find help. There are no cowboys left. This year, we have people working against us in strange places. Our neighbors are not ranchers and our government forgot how our nation got strong and independent. This year we took $.14 per pound, that's seventy dollars per head, less than it will take to break even. And this year, we finally said it isn't worth it.

Tonight, as the cows still call to the calves that will never come home, we also mourn. The rest of our country should mourn, too. Our home on the

range is filled with discouraging words and the cloudy skies can't help. We are watching the last generation of ranchers ride off into the sunset.

Our people are no longer interested in using our country to produce our own food. We are interested in preserving wide-open space for generations who will eat at McDonalds and never wonder whether the "rancher" in Argentina who produced their hamburger used holistic resource management, humane shipping methods, or fenced off his riparian areas. We will never know enough to be outraged.

What we will know is what the sign tells us to be true in front of the abandoned homestead and that there are no longer cow pies to step over on our hike through the national forest. We can buy a piece of heaven, 60 acres in the country, and never worry about what happened to the people who used the land. We will bemoan the plight of the obese. We will never see the irony. We can put on our cowboy boots and brand our arches and forget completely about why we were intrigued by Montana in the first place and what made the West so fascinating and admirable.

America is exporting its heritage, its strength, its independence. We are regulating ourselves out of business. We may live to regret this, but will it be a lesson our country can live through?

I cannot predict what will come for our nation. I can only hope our own fate is not the beginning of the end. Last year, and the year before, we continued in spite of adversity because we love it. We were lucky to live the life. Economics came second to integrity. We still had the dream. This year, it died.

Renee Daniels-Mantle

Three Forks, Montana

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