SALMON — Some of Bob Cope’s best customers have broken his nose, knocked him to the ground and whacked him on the head.
Cope, a large-animal veterinarian who specializes in cattle, will retire from the Lemhi County Commission at the end of the year. After 14 years in office, Cope said voters always showed him far more courtesy than his sometimes cantankerous four-legged constituents.
Selected in 1969 as a U.S. Presidential Scholar in his home state of Kansas, Cope went on to receive a degree from Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. During college, he took on a raft of jobs, ranging from manure-scooper at an animal resources facility to tending a beer bar at night.
That work ethic still benefits Cope nearly half a century later. Although the 64-year-old — known for his keen intellect, folksy charm and quirky dress code (overalls and bare feet) — is stepping down as a commissioner, Cope will continue caring for cattle.
“I’ve spent nearly 40 years wrestling cows and I’ll keep doing it as long as I can fight them off,” he said.
The countless cows whose lives he saved, whose calves he rescued or whose health he restored, had a strange way of showing their gratitude. Cope’s hoofed patients have broken his nose three times. He’s lost track of the number of times that cattle have kicked him in the head.
“That explains a lot about me,” he joked.
No keeping Cope down
It will take more than a herd of outraged cows to keep Cope down. He has battled back after knee injuries suffered as a high school basketball player. The knee problems made him ineligible for an appointment in 1969 to attend the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Over the years, Cope’s veterinary practice has required him to be available at any hour — day or night. Cows don’t respect 9-to-5 business hours. Still, it’s difficult to fathom how Cope coped at times, especially when some of his days demanded as many as 22 hours, split between the ranches and county offices.
He first was elected to the commission during one of the county’s darkest financial chapters. The local government went broke in 1999, which resulted in selling off equipment and scaling back work schedules. Those financial difficulties prompted Cope to run for a commission seat. But Cope said many of the remedies already were in place by the time he took office.
Working with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management — an estimated 90 percent of the county’s acreage is public land — proved to be the commission’s greatest challenge while Cope was a member. Those relationships also marked some of its greatest triumphs.
“Our relationships with federal agencies are good because we’ve made the effort to reach out and establish them,” he said.
Cope was among a group of officials who, several years ago, successfully pushed for revisions in a roadless rule on federal lands in Idaho. Developed with the Forest Service, the revisions allowed access to protected backcountry areas to conduct land-management projects such as fuel reduction.
He also was appointed to more than a dozen state and national boards, including the Idaho Roadless Commission and National Association of Counties. Additionally, Cope has been deeply involved in environmental and public land issues.
Responding to an ad
Cope came to the Lemhi Valley in October 1977. He saw an ad in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, listing a veterinary practice for sale in the remote mountain valley.
It was love at first sight.
“When I drove into the valley, I was home. Instantly, it hit me: this was the place,” he said.
He’s been caring for cows ever since.
Cope has seen diseases devastate cattle herds and anguish the owners of the animals. He has fought alongside ranchers to safely extract newborn calves and witnessed breeding improvements that produced larger heifers.
“Thirty years ago, you did a lot of calf work because you had heifers that weren’t big enough breeding with big bulls,” he said.
Decades ago, Cope was there when a mysterious disease known as weak-calf syndrome ravaged herds in Lemhi County and Montana’s neighboring Bitterroot Valley. He has seen other ailments strike certain herds with maximum force — and then retreat without a trace for no apparent reason.
“There are some things out there and they will come back one day. I don’t know what they are and neither does anyone else,” he said.
Lemhi cattlemen the ‘best’
His dealings with local ranchers have been a high point.
“Lemhi’s cattle are renowned and these are the best cattlemen in the country,” he said. “I gained my knowledge not from what I did, but from what they did. These ranchers are here because they know what they’re doing.”
So does Cope.
Veteran Lemhi County Clerk Terri Morton said residents could count on Cope to know the issues and seek to make the best decisions for Lemhi.
“He’s done a good job. I think everyone will miss him,” she said.