Number of cattle, ranchers have dwindled from heyday

Development, other pressures challenge occupation

By Will Shoemaker

(Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on the state of agriculture in the Gunnison Valley which will appear periodically in coming months.)

There was a time when Lee Spann remembers nine separate ranches stretching from Gunnison west across prime hay meadow to the choke of the river canyon. Today, there are two — a testament to the waning presence of agriculture in close proximity to the Gunnison Valley’s population centers.

“There was a little community here,” said 84-year-old Spann. “The same thing applied to Iola, Sapinero, Jack's Cabin.”

That’s just to name a few. The first two now are under the waters of Blue Mesa Reservoir, and the last is surrounded by subdivisions comprised of multi-million dollar homes overlooking a slice of paradise.

Yet, development is just one of many pressures that have made agriculture in the Gunnison Valley what it is today — a pared-down version of an industry that was once much bigger.

“I think we’re always going to continue to see cattle in the Gunnison Valley,” said Eric McPhail, Gunnison County director of the Colorado State University (CSU) Extension. “It just might look a little different.”

For one, that’s sure to mean changes in management — whether they be the next generation of a longtime ranching family taking the reins, or arrangements that allow historical agricultural properties to remain productive even after purchase by part-time residents.


‘Such a demanding profession’

Spann’s great-grandparents were the first members of his family to ranch in the Gunnison Valley — homesteading a property south of Crested Butte. Ranching was more than in Spann’s blood. It was all around him growing up.

An only child, he was among the first members of the first 4-H club in Gunnison and belonged to the high school chapter of the Future Farmers of America. Spann went off to college at CSU — the Centennial State’s premier school for agricultural studies — but was drawn back home before graduating. In 1953, he and wife Polly went into business with his parents raising cattle.  

“Ranching is something that if you don’t want to do it you better not be in it, because it’s such a demanding profession,” he attested.

Territorial struggles between sheep and cattle growers occurred before Spann’s time. By the time he entered the business, cattle ranching was at its peak in the Gunnison Country.

In 1950, there were 207 individual ranches in Gunnison County, 191 of which raised cattle, according to census data compiled about every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They occupied 274,091 acres, 39,540 of which grew hay.

Those numbers have slid considerably as development took the place of prime haying ground, longtime ranching families abandoned the business or moved elsewhere, and social and environmental pressures have made it more difficult to earn a living.

Today, the number of ranches raising cattle in the county is 91 — less than half of that in 1950 — and total acreage occupied by those operations has declined by about a third.

At the same time, technological advances have improved growers’ ability to get product to market. Railroad has given way to semi trucks. What used to be an annual sale of cattle for the Spanns now occurs about every two months — offering a chance for higher prices when the market allows.

Still, new challenges have emerged — not the least of which is competition for use of public lands, primarily as a result of new and rapidly growing forms of recreation in the valley.  

“My grandfather, he didn’t know what a bicycle was,” Spann offered.

Additionally, water and wildlife concerns have presented a level of uncertainty past generations never had to consider.


‘There’s stability here’

Corrie Knapp has heard much about both topics from local ranchers. The assistant professor of Environment and Sustainability at Western State Colorado University interviewed dozens of local families in 2011 about climate change and again in 2012 about potential Gunnison Sage-grouse listing, seeking to understand the social implications of both topics.  

Public lands have been central to the rise of ranching locally, but on the topic of climate variability Knapp heard a need for greater flexibility in coming years as opposed to hard-and-fast rules for agricultural use of those lands.

She also noted differing outlooks on the future of agriculture, based largely on use of a tool that in recent decades has been widespread in preserving ranchland locally — conservation easements.

“There was an interesting difference between folks who had adopted conservation easements and those who hadn’t,” Knapp said. “I think the folks who had conservation easements in place on their land were often more secure in terms of their belief that their ranch would continue in the future.”

Extension Director McPhail believes the model currently at work in the valley provides hope for ranching’s future here. He doesn’t see production figures dropping all that substantially in coming decades.

“I think there’s stability here,” he said. “It’s so easy to have the number of cattle we have now.”

For an industry scaled back from its heyday, the Spanns — for one — have faired well. Today, three generations of the family are actively involved in the operation — which encompasses five properties across three western Colorado counties.

“It is a very satisfying lifestyle. It’s hard but, it’s satisfying,” Lee Spann explained. “To see the newborn calf get up and suck it’s mother. To see the product you have grow and develop. To have your family come back and be interested in doing it.”


(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or

Gunnison Country Times

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