Ride with Jim Young and his crew as they search for the wildest cattle left in the American West.
I woke up to the sound of wild turkeys gobbling outside my window and someone running water in the kitchen. My room was cold, but I was excited to get out of the warm bed and get the day going. Sitting up, I noticed there were two lumps in the bedrolls facing my bunk, which meant the Nelson brothers had finally rolled into camp sometime in the dead of night.
“Morning,” Jim Young says as I walked into the kitchen. He had picked me up the day prior in Las Vegas before we made the more than three-hour trip to our cow camp, 25 miles outside of Caliente, Nevada.
The camp was picturesque, tucked into Rainbow Canyon, which cuts between the Delamar and Clover mountain ranges. Railroad tie corrals and a few supply house cabins lay scattered about the property. The Union Pacific rail line cut through the Cottonwood trees on the other side of the small road and creek out front. The single-wide trailer housing us was built in the 1960s and wasn’t quite as picturesque. All in all, it had everything we needed, which was mostly a little warmth. It also had a few of the things we wanted, like a flushable toilet and a working stove.
Creature comforts appear to mean little to Jim, who left home at 16 years old to be a cowboy. He quit school in the 10th grade, and made his way to Colorado, where a rancher took him under his wing and taught him a few life lessons and the hard-worn skills of a cowhand.
Jim bounced around to different outfits during his formative years, gaining the type of education you mostly don’t get in school — some of it good and some bad. He worked on ranches from Arizona to Nevada to Texas, picking up seasonal jobs and day-working gigs when he could. Jim met more than one cowboy along the way who eventually gave up life on the range for the better paying jobs underneath it in the mines, but he was never attracted to compromising passion for money and has remained a cowboy since.
Jim smiled and handed me a cup of black coffee.
“Here in a bit, we’ll get those Nelson boys up and get the horses fed,” Jim says. “We’ll eat a big breakfast because we probably won’t be back here until after dark. I don’t mind leaving after daylight because we never know when we’ll get back.”
Jim gave a rundown of JY Livestock Gathering’s overall operation and the day’s work. I had only read about wild cow catching in works penned by the likes of Ed Ashurst and a few others. It always seemed a nearly mythical profession to me — these cowboys you never see in person and who still ride the canyon depths of the American West, chasing the wildest of the wild. A good day is when you finish tying down the day’s cows with your own belt and reins because you’ve used up all your rope.
There are a number of reasons why cattle must be caught and removed from certain areas of the West. The most common need comes from the federal government. Bovine removal from United States public lands is sometimes a necessity for ecological or even safety reasons. Contracts are publicly listed; outfits bid in an effort to win the jobs, which can last from weeks to more than a year. The bidders provide information about their experience, general plan of action and operational logistics.
Other contracts originate with land owners who have their own Bureau of Land Management leases and want a piece of country cleaned off to reduce competition with their own cattle. Other contracts are provided because too many pesky cows keep attacking hippies on public lands.
The term “wild cow,” from a technical standpoint, is a misnomer. The cattle are more accurately defined as feral. Their ancestors escaped into the wilderness years ago. Since then, they and their offspring have been left to their own devices. Because many of the “wild cows” today have never seen a human being, we use the term (and other unprintable descriptors) to refer to any unbranded bovine living unattended in the wild.
Even with the technological advances of the 21st century, the most efficient way to remove wild cattle from large expanses of land is still with horseback mounted cowboys. Helicopters are sometimes used, but dangerous flying terrain and the simple economics of paying an average $700 per hour often make choppers a non-viable solution. All-terrain vehicles are not practical, as most wild cattle cannot be driven by any stretch of the imagination. That leaves only a small handful of people and outfits who are skilled in this extremely niche profession, even by working cowboy standards.
Generally, wild cow catchers make their way into the wilderness with a crew of handy cowboys and dogs. The dogs have GPS collars and are sent on their way to find and bay the cattle up, where the cows are then roped. Then, the cowboys find a nearby tree and cut the bottom branches off with fold up saws they keep in their chap pockets. They cut off the horns, and the bull or cow is tied to the tree in such a manner that it can’t choke itself.
The cowboys leave the cow tied up for a period of time to hopefully settle down, then they come back and lead it out of the wilderness. One cowboy dallies the cow to his horse and another serves behind as a “spooker,” to help push it along. With an experienced lead man, it usually doesn’t take long for the cow or bull to “mother up” and begin walking in tandem with the lead horse.
It’s a delicate dance, however, and the cowboys make every effort not to drag the cow, which isn’t sustainable when covering miles of backcountry. When the cow goes forward, you go forward. When the cow stops, you stop.
The spooker’s job isn’t traditional in a cow handling sense, either. The spooker only moves forward when the cow stops. When the cow begins moving again, the spooker stays put until the leader is out of sight. That way, the cow doesn’t get used to hearing something constantly behind it, becoming desensitized. When it stops, the spooker blazes like the devil, hooting and hollering, and so the cow begins its journey once again.
Being a wild cow catcher is a rough job to put it mildly. The living conditions are almost always sub-par. The cattle don’t like you; the surrounding neighbors often think you’re a rustler; people in town think you’re dirty. The rides are long, and the meals are far and few between. There’s often blood, and it’s rougher than the granite ridge you hope you don’t slide off. Danger is omnipresent. And it’s tough. Every part of it. The horses are tough; the cowboys are tough; the dogs are tough; and the cattle are tough. It’s so tough, it’s silly, and it’s darn near inexplicable.
The Chase Begins
I sat sipping the coffee Jim gave me. The table was littered with self-help books, sketch books and books about business. It seemed a juxtaposition to the work at hand. Wind howled through the windows as the little propane heater chugged to keep up.
The Nelson brothers came in and made the customary, verbally-limited introduction that most working cowboys make until they get to know you.
Jim stood over the stove jovially frying up some SPAM and eggs for breakfast. The coffee had kicked in, and he was ready to ride.
“Boys, today we get to go be COWBOYS,” Jim says over the sizzling breakfast.
The quiet Nelson brothers blinked at him wearily and shuffled out the door into the still-winter wind to feed the horses and dogs. I picked up a copy of Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey and stared at the cover for a moment, then followed the brothers outside.
J.C. and Eudell Nelson have lived their entire lives in the mountains outside Alma, New Mexico. I get the impression that they’ve rarely been to town, and live in a very close-knit community where God, family and friends are paramount to everything else. Although only 27 and 19 years old, respectively, I never heard them mutter a curse word while working a profession where, to me, regular cursing appears to be well justified. When they’re not hunting wild cattle, they ranch and guide mountain lion and bear hunts back home. Their mom told them they could quit school as soon as they could pass the GED test, which J.C. was able to do by eighth grade. Since then, they’ve kept their noses to the grindstone putting food on the table for themselves and their loved ones.
The morning routine was pretty standard: walk across the frozen earth to feed the 18 horses their frozen hay. Then, put the collars on the lucky dogs that were going to come out for the day. From there, we would catch our mounts. After tying the horses to the trailer, I gave mine a bit of molasses feed while saddling up.
One thing that struck me about the crew is I never saw them take a bottle of water or any food. Going deep into the woods, I’d keep an army canteen and some deer jerky I’d smoked back home in my cantle bag. I figured if we were going to be out into the depths of the night, I’d at least like to have something in my belly, and the years have taught me to always take water into the backcountry when I can.
After saddling, scarfing breakfast and loading horses, we trailered our way through the canyon, whose beauty was shocking with 3,000-foot iron red rock walls. We eventually snaked our way out of the canyon and onto an expansive plateau before driving steep fire roads back down into the valley on the other side of the Delamars.
The turns were so tight that sometimes I couldn’t see the road below my passenger window and only looked down into the drop. It reminded me of being on a roller coaster rail’s summit and holding there for just a moment before the plummet. After 42 miles of driving from camp, we finally reached the end of the last road into the wilderness. We unloaded the horses and mounted up before disappearing into the mountains.
The journey began easily enough, and the country was as crisp and beautiful as it was big. We could see for miles across the plateaus, and I enjoyed winding through the winter dead forests as we rode single file in the draws below.
Things began to change when we came to the base of the range and began to climb. Our horseshoes ground on the rocks. The country grew steeper and the trail narrower until it was nonexistent. I began to wonder if this was some sort of joke or test of my mettle. I would learn soon enough that it was not. It was the daily work commute for the wild cow crew, and they thought little of it.
We climbed to a ridge point and dismounted to rest our horses and lead them down the other side. It was too steep to stay horseback. Periodically, Jim would stop to glass the area with his small binoculars and check the dogs’ locations on the GPS. This would go on for the next several hours as we traversed the wilderness.
Jim told me the feral cattle they’d been dealing with didn’t need to be called. When we saw them, they would come to us.
“Keep your eyes open, and always have an escape route in mind,” Jim says repeatedly. “When we get on ‘em, it’s gonna happen quick. There’s no hospital, so try not to get hooked.”
We climbed a ridge, and my GPS clocked us at around 9,000 feet. It was almost noon, and we could hear the dogs baying over the summit, so we all quickly hopped off to tighten our cinches. In an instant, the three cowboys mounted back up with ropes drawn and loops built. We tore over the summit and a bachelor pad of three huge Longhorn/Hereford cross bulls were running down the south face of the mountain.
I had never seen such an impressive disregard for safety as the cowboys careened down the mountain horseback through the rocks and scree below. Dust and stones flew as the three cowboys each took after his respective bull in perfect choreography. Nothing slowed them down as they ran full speed through the sage and cedar trees.
Jim tore down the mountain and straight up the next one. J.C. and Eudell took off down the valley until only their dust trails remained in sight. Jim roped his bull and nearly wrecked as it ran back below him, jerking his horse to its knees and nearly tumbling down the mountain. He was able to trip the bull a moment later, and as soon as the 1,800-pound beast was on the ground, Jim flew off his horse while pulling piggin strings from his leggings in tandem. He jumped on top of the bull’s ribs and quickly (but calmly) tied the back legs together. Then, he took a front leg and tied that one to the two back. He sat on the bull and caught his breath.
“And that’s wild cow catching,” Jim says. “I won’t hire a man who can’t rope and tie at least a 2,000-pound bull alone. If they can’t do that, they don’t need to be here. Those Nelson boys are cowboys. They’re the real deal.”
Jim doesn’t call many people cowboys.
We continued our course as the weather turned for the worse over the next several days, first bringing snow flurries and then blizzard conditions. The work didn’t change however — catching, tying and leading cattle out of the wild. The crew’s hands were stiff and toes frozen, and the snow kept falling.
Darkness fell on tired horses and men as we rode one evening through the snowy desert back to the trailer. My first tenure with JY Livestock Gathering was about to end, but the cowboys would continue every day throughout the spring until the country was clean. When the Caliente contract wrapped, Jim headed back to his family on their small spread in Fallon, Nevada.
A Good Hand
When I first met Jim six years ago, he was cowboying on the Spanish Ranch north of Elko, Nevada. Standing at 6-foot-2-inches and weighing a good 225 pounds, he stands solid and is respectful to those who are respectful to him. As far as I know, Jim is known as a good hand from Nevada to Texas. I don’t know if he’s loved by everyone he’s ever met, but I’ve never heard anyone say anything disparaging about his cow handling skills.
Outside of his life in the wild, Jim is married to Jolyn Young, his wife of 10 years. He speaks of her and his three children — Milo, Grace and Levi — fondly and regularly. The little ones seem to take after their dad in a number of ways. Milo and Levi are already little cowpunchers who can rope better than quite a few adults I’ve seen, and 9-year-old Grace was recently sent home from school for bloodying a boy’s nose. He had yanked her sweater’s hood off her head, and she is, of course, versed in the fact that you never touch someone else’s hat.
When Jim is gone, Jolyn manages the administrative side of the family business while also managing the family itself: school, the remuda, continual litters of puppies, the house and God knows what else. Speaking with Jolyn on the phone at any given moment is like chatting with someone who’s also on a separate conference call with three toddlers.
Somehow, Jolyn finds time to work as a freelance writer for several magazines (including Western Horseman) and newspapers in addition to writing a monthly humor column. She also just signed her first book publishing deal. The book is about the Youngs’ life on the range; although she doesn’t have a working title, Jim is convinced Lust in the Dust would make for a best seller.
Communication is often limited when Jim is working. Until recently, it was nearly nonexistent. Cell phones just don’t work in most of the country where you find wild cows. Eventually, he invested in a text communicator that works off of the dog’s collars and links to the Iridium satellite network. Now, Jim can text Jolyn from anywhere in the world, no matter how remote. Although Jim often works with crews, he sometimes works alone, and having a safety tether brings a lot of comfort to the family back home.
Between contracts, Jolyn describes Jim as a relatively domesticated family man. He rides his mountain bike with the kids, helps out with the chores and grills steaks now and then. His time is also spent riding young horses and keeping the dogs and equipment ready for the next contract.
After a short summer break in Fallon with the family, they were awarded a six-month U.S. Forest Service contract to remove wild cattle off the East Verde River Basin in Arizona. Jim wasted no time, and immediately headed to the nearby reservation to buy a few additional horses for his string.
Horses and dogs in hand, all Jim needed now were cowboys. Word of mouth travels a long way in the working cowboy world and even further when you’re a wild cow man. The Nelson brothers were busy on their own spread, so Jim called some old punchers for references.
He hired wild cowpuncher Lawty Cavelier. Only 19 years old, Lawty maintains the disposition of an old soul, yet his eyes house an outlaw spark of energy that matches his profession. He works in a fashion that makes me wonder how he is so humbly proficient in his trade at such a young age. A few weeks after that, he hired Dalley Phillips, a 17-year-old fresh-faced Arizona cowboy who has probably forgotten more about catching wild cattle than most will ever know. He is already regarded by many as an extremely dependable hand.
Jim and his hands set up a makeshift wagon camp deep in forest service land, sleeping in their bedrolls and tipis while eating every night off a two-burner propane stove. There they remained until they cleaned the country of cattle and moved to another camp near the old LF Ranch, west of Payson, Arizona.
The new camp was still primitive, but it did have a small bunkhouse. There were a couple bunk beds and no speakable facilities, but Jim set up a makeshift chuck area under the front porch where he could cook massive single skillet meals for breakfast and supper.
It’s a Cowboy’s Job
It was late December, and I was working in my warm studio when the phone rang. I could hear Jim through the wind on the other end of the line, where he was perched on a ridge to get spotty cell service. He explained the new contract and invited me to ride with his outfit once again. A week later, I packed my gear and caught a flight to Phoenix, Arizona. Jim met me in Payson, and we picked up a few supplies in town before making the more than 2-hour drive to the camp.
We were camped in a valley just south of the East Verde and located a few hundred yards from the Arizona Trail that snakes from Utah through Arizona down to Mexico.
The next morning, we surprised two backpackers when we crossed the river. They were sitting on the freezing banks drying out their socks, and I like to imagine they were in awe at this posse of cowboys suddenly thrashing through the river horseback and then disappearing just as suddenly into the trees below.
Once atop the mesa, we could see for miles. It was incredibly rough country with zero signs of modern civilization. Jim told me we would be covering a lot of miles, but most of our time would be spent leading the cattle out that the crew had already caught.
Chasing and roping wild cattle is an intense experience to say the least, but Jim says the real danger lies in the hectic moments when you first take the cow or bull off the tree. Although the cattle fatigue while tied, most are still full of enough vinegar to cause serious damage.
There are a lot of little tricks wild cow men have that are unique to the profession. Before taking a cow or bull off the tree, the crew will sometimes use a patch on the cow’s horse-side eye, or, in a pinch, sew an eyelid shut, which makes it easier to lead.
Also, the cowboy might clip a carabiner to the saddle’s front cinch ring and run the dallied rope through it, allowing for less movement on larger cattle. When descending steep terrain or cliff steps, the cowboys will sometimes put the carabiner on the saddle’s rear D ring. When the rope is dallied and run through that carabiner, the cow is then somewhat restrained from running in front of your horse and dragging you.
Dalley eased his horse up to the 1600-pound bull tied to a thick cedar tree and made sure his rope was right, as Lawty struggled afoot to untie the piggin’ string on the other side of the trunk. The short rope was the last line of defense holding the bull to the tree, and as soon as it was released, Dalley would be the only one keeping the beast from running off or over someone.
Everything happened so fast that it’s a blur, but what I do know is that Dalley Phillips came undallied, and — to my untrained eye — all hell broke loose. The bull missed my horse by a short hair then spun around and went underneath Jim’s horse before thundering back into the brush. Dalley and Lawty were immediately after the bull, and Jim’s new horse bucked him to the ground. Jim looked fine, and I raced after his steed. A few minutes later, the cowboys tied the bull back down, and we were back in working order.
That evening, we slowly walked home horseback as the moon illuminated our trail. It only hung as a fingernail, but the air was clear and the stars were bright. The mesa and mountain skyline were illuminated to my right, and the sky was so clear it was like being in space itself. We rode through the same American West that had entranced the imaginations of thousands before us — simply four silhouettes riding quietly through the stillness of the night.
And such is the life of a wild cow catcher, a remaining and very real spirit that continues to this day in the American West. As Jim Young puts it, “There’s not a better way to make a living, while living free.”
This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue of Western Horseman.