He arranged to meet us at the barrier. Somewhere, on a dirt road, heading north, away from civilization. In this state of Wyoming, nicknamed “the Big Empty”, in reference to its 581,000 inhabitants scattered over a territory as large as half of France. We expect to see a cowboy arrive, western style, skin wrinkled by the sun and half-closed eyes, marked by the often brutal, ruthless and solitary life of the Great Plains. Kem Nicolaysen, 45, cap screwed on his head, jeans and boots, takes us on a tour of his ranch, aboard his Ford Ranger pickup, a Winchester at hand, on the back seat of the vehicle.
“My heart is here”, he lets go when he arrives in front of the deserted house, built by his parents on the edge of the stream, in the hollow of a valley planted with trees. His father, Jon, retired, now lives in Casper, half an hour away by car. A lover of his land and keen on history, Kem Nicolaysen took charge of the Cole Creek Sheep Company in 2008 after a master’s degree in literature, two years in Seattle (Washington) and four years in Phoenix (Arizona).
“Livestock farming is the most sustainable activity for this type of soil”, he said, pointing to the vast expanses covered with low grass. The sky is almost endless. The landscape is otherworldly, a mix of arid desolation, wilderness, sand and sagebrush. Cliffs, mounds, canyons. Dry, sage-strewn, windswept meadows. Deer on the loose. Jagged pink granite hills that outcrop above the flat sediment.
Transhumance over more than 38,000 hectares
The breeder practices transhumance on a territory of more than 38,000 hectares, including approximately 24,000 hectares of private land in full ownership, 1,600 hectares of private land on lease, not counting long-term leases on 8,000 hectares of land federal and 4,000 hectares of Wyoming state land. An immensity to maintain a herd of 800 Black Angus and 800 Merino de Rambouillet, with five workers and an accountant.
In the middle of this silver steppe, 30 oil wells operated by Southwestern Production Corp (Colorado) and 66 wind turbines installed since 2009 on the heights of Campbell Hill by Duke Energy (North Carolina). Cattle and hay sales account for 70% of turnover.
The ranch receives no revenue from oil production, only surface damage to roads, pipelines, power lines and well pads. “Uncontrolled oil and gas extraction can destroy a ranch,” alert Kem Nicolaysen. “It all depends on the relationship you have with the oil company. It’s different for a wind farm. We can negotiate more easily on the location of the turbines, the rental of the land and the fee”.
Four generations since the 1880s
Four generations have succeeded each other on the ranch. In the 1880s, Peter C. Nicolaysen, the great-grandfather, who came from Denmark, landed in Casper where he ran a saloon along the railway line built by the Chicago & North Western (C & WN). After his marriage in 1891 to Clementina Sarah Evans, daughter of an immigrant from Wales, he took over a timber business, bought land and started raising sheep.
A good manager, the youngest son, Gerald, then stabilizes the family business. And for forty years, Jon, Kem’s father, expands, diversifies the operation, works with oil companies and brings the installation of wind turbines in 2009. ” Since I came back, says the rancher, I developed better agricultural practices, improved the quality of cattle, sheep and wool. Livestock farming benefits the soil, air quality and the environment. We must manage all these challenges at the same time in a responsible way. »
The right to vote for women from 1869
Conservative Wyoming likes to call itself “the cowboy state,” though progressives and tourist brochures prefer to hype the moniker “equality state.” The state was the first to grant women the right to vote in 1869, fifty years before all American women. For very pragmatic reasons: it was necessary to attract more settlers to the lands taken from the Amerindian tribes. In fact, Wyoming is one of the states with the lowest percentage of women in regional parliament and agriculture contributes only 2% of its income, far behind the fossil fuel industry which funds 65%. public spending.
From 2000 to 2020, Wyoming’s total resident population increased by 17%. Most population growth is occurring around cities, and urban sprawl endangers family ranches. ” Those who are not big enough and do not have oil or wind turbines on their land are struggling to survive. Land is being bought up by big business and wealthy investors says Tom Rea, journalist and co-founder of the Wyoming State Historical Society. “In the northwest of the state, the Jackson Hole region, not far from Yellowstone National Park, particularly appeals to ‘billionaire cowboys’. »
The Ten Principles of “Cowboy Ethics”
The myth of the cowboy, individualist like the first pioneers, follower of a solitary and nomadic way of life, close to virgin nature, has lived, but the reference persists in the face of the onslaught of modernity. In 2010, the Cheyenne Legislature enshrined in state law the Ten Principles of “Cowboy Ethics.” The code urges residents and lawmakers to “to live each day with courage, to finish what they started, to be tough but fair and to keep their promises”.
“In Wyoming, “neighbor” is a verb, notes Rod Miller, columnist at Cowboy State Daily. A sense of civility and courtesy are part of the traditions. If someone approaches your table to greet you, you stand up to shake their hand. You don’t wear a hat if you’re dining with a lady. You remove it for the oath of allegiance to the flag. You recite the graces before the meal. »
Guardians of the Earth
Today’s ranchers see themselves as guardians of the land, concerned with preserving the balance of a fragile ecosystem. The management of water and pastures, the maintenance of fences, innovations such as solar water pumps, are part of daily work, beneficial for livestock farming as well as for the protection of fauna and flora. “Independence and solidarity with the community, these fundamental values of the cowboy are very real”, insists Kem Nicolaysen. “For me, that means the freedom to do your own thing, take care of your employees, keep connected to this place and preserve a way of life for future generations. »
In Casper, the town founded by the pioneers along the railroad, the Nicolaysens remain engaged in community life. The art museum, founded in 1967, bears their name. Kem, his wife Shelly and their three children, ages 11, 9 and 7, live on the ranch. Jon, 76, doesn’t go there often anymore but he will always be able to tell you where the cows take shelter to give birth and where the prairie dogs dig their burrows. Peter, 50, a lawyer, Kem’s eldest son and brother, entered politics as the Republican candidate to run the county. The family has adapted through the cycles of boom and bust, faithful to this spirit of the West where autonomy is cultivated as a virtue.
Once inhabited by Native American groups, the Territory of Wyoming, created in 1868, became the 44th state of the United States in 1890.
Population. 578,803 inhabitants (2.24 inhabitants/km2 in 2010) including 83.3% whites, 10.6% Hispanics, 2.8% Amerindians and 1.2% blacks.
Area. 251,500 km2, of which 48% is owned by the federal government and 5.6% by the Wyoming state government.
Economy. The three main sectors are, in terms of income, the mining industry (oil and gas, coal, natron, uranium), tourism and agriculture, and, in terms of employment, mining, real estate and the manufacturing industry. Unemployment rate: 3.6%.
Policy. The governor of the state is Republican Mark Gordon. In the 2020 presidential election, Donald Trump obtained 69.94% of the vote, compared to 26.55% for Joe Biden.