Thursday, February 28, 2008

Drought forces grazing cutbacks again

By Steve Miller, Journal staff

For the fourth straight year, drought is prompting Forest Service officials to reduce the amount of livestock grazing they will allow on the Fall River Ranger District of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

The drought looks likely to continue based on the latest forecasts, and vegetation throughout most of the Fall River district is in tough shape after an eight- or nine-year drought, according to Bob Novotny, rangeland specialist for the district.

“Nothing in Fall River County looks good right now,” Novotny said. “It’s just because of the drought.”

The Fall River District covers roughly 320,000 acres in Fall River, Custer and Pennington counties.

The reductions will affect more than 100 ranching operations, Novotny said.

He said the reductions in the number of cattle allowed will vary greatly. In the area around Oelrichs, reductions will begin at 30 percent, but there can be adjustments up or down, depending on the range conditions.

Some allotments will be cut back 50 percent or more. Others, including some that were rested last year, could have much smaller reductions, Novotny said.

In addition the “turnout” date, when cattle will be allowed to move onto the federal grazing lands, has been delayed until June 1. Typical turnout dates in years with adequate moisture are May 1 or May 15.

The grazing permits generally allow ranchers to run livestock on the federal land until September or October. Some ranchers voluntarily reduced their numbers and pulled their cattle off the allotments early last year, Novotny said.

Some permittees didn’t graze any cattle on their allotments last year.

Ranchers such as Dave Dunbar of Oelrichs and Mark Tubbs of Edgemont don’t dispute the drought situation. But they say the grazing reductions bite into their income. “It’s going to affect the whole community’s income,” Dunbar said.

They also worry that the Forest Service won’t allow more grazing even if the region gets good rain this spring, bringing the grass back. “I don’t think the Forest Service is flexible enough to change their opinion,” Dunbar said.

Tubbs said he can live with the later turnout date. “But if we get some rain in the spring and the grass grows, it ought to be used. When they first came out with their plan to cut all their (cattle numbers) they said they didn’t care whether it rained. We barked a little bit and they changed their attitude,” Tubbs said.

Tubbs said some ranchers in his area have private land mixed in with the government land, so the restrictions will hurt them especially hard. “Some of these guys are in terrible situations,” he said.

Novotny acknowledges that the Forest Service won’t be very flexible this year, except on individual cases. “We need some recharge. Any kind of grazing on these plants is a stress.”

He said Forest Service officials know how desperate many ranchers are for forage. “But we have to protect that resource.”

Novotny said spring rains might green the grass up, but the root systems, which have shrunk during the drought years, need time to recover. He said one good spring won’t cure the ills from a long-term drought.

Novotny said one rancher reported digging down six feet when he put in a pipeline and not finding any moisture.

Grazing has been cut back on the district every year since 2005, Novotny said. The district was dry from 2000 to 2004, but enough rain fell in a timely manner to produce adequate grass.

Grazing reductions on the federal ground are determined using a formula developed by South Dakota State University and the University of Nebraska.

Many ranchers in the area have sold off some of their cows, putting less pressure on the grass. But that sell-off has also reduced the number of calves they have to sell in the fall. Some, Novotny said, have sold all their cows, in effect, getting rid of the factory that produces calves and income.

Some ranchers now buy yearling cattle in the spring, graze them over the summer and sell them in the fall.

“One permittee said he wouldn’t have an animal on the allotment or on his own place this year,” Novotny said. “He is running out of hay.”

Ranchers in drought-stricken areas have had to buy expensive hay from elsewhere and pay the high fuel costs to ship it.

The region has gotten some snow cover this winter, Novotny said, which has helped protect the plants from winter kill.

Meanwhile, Forest Service officials and ranchers are waiting anxiously to see how much moisture falls in the critical months ahead, when the region normally gets a good portion of its annual precipitation.

Dunbar said everybody is short of forage. “There’s just nothing left. We have to have rain this spring or it isn’t going to matter. We’re going to all be out of the cattle business.”

Contact Steve Miller at 394-8417 or

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