Liz Anderson, who grew up riding horses on the Climbing Arrow Ranch in Southwest Montana, prepares her lariat and focuses on a calf that she will heel and drag to the branding area.

Images of the West: The Way of the West

More than 150 years after Nelson Story’s famous Texas-to-Montana cattle drive, cattle rustlers still roam the American West, and traditional ranchers still brand their calves to identify their herd and safeguard their livelihood. The practice of rope-and-drag branding, with irons in an open fire pit and cowboys rustling around on horseback, is a fading time-honored custom, and one that some ranches around the Northern Rockies still observe and cherish every year. The Climbing Arrow Ranch near Three Forks, Montana, is a prime example. Each year, they host annual branding events that bring friends and neighbors together for a tradition that defines a place and the people who live in it, while also paying tribute to a revered way of life.

The ranch spans a magnificent 53,800 acres and includes far-reaching pastures, stretches of running water, and alpine landscapes throughout the Northern Gallatin Range. When one stands on this land, it’s as if time has stopped, and it’s no wonder that some scenes from “A River Runs Through It” were filmed here.

Frank Anderson’s family has been honoring traditional ranching practices since 1959. He, his wife Meg, and daughter Elizabeth manage the Climbing Arrow and are on call every hour of every day of every year. The ranch typically runs with a core crew of seven cowhands, and they hire a few seasonal helpers to brand their nine batches of cattle. Branding is not only strenuous, but it’s also dangerous. These seasoned men and women have worked together for decades, and some for generations, to the point where they intuitively understand the cattle and how to best work with each other.

When it’s time to get started, the ropers, who are mounted on horseback, separate the calves from their mothers in a corral, trapping the heels of calves with their lariats, dallying their lines to the saddle horn, and dragging the animals into a lane by the branding irons. Meanwhile, the other cowhands pay close attention, immediately tending to their tasks when a calf is brought in.

A wrestler steadies the calf on the ground, while one person injects the necessary vaccines, another castrates the bulls and puts ear notches on the heifers to help identify them, while the foreman or ranch owner carefully marks the calf with the fire-heated brand. They work quickly and quietly to reduce the amount of stress on the cattle, and, within a couple of minutes, the calf pairs back with its mother. This process is repeated almost 200 times during each branding, and although there are faster, more cost- and time-efficient ways to brand these days, Anderson has a deep-rooted devotion to his heritage and appreciates the tradition.

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