Volume 7, Number 15 - July 5, 2007
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After the fire...
This is the week Merna rancher Louie Roberts always gathers up his 300 or so pairs of cows and calves and turns them out onto his forest summer-grazing allotment on Horse Creek.
This summer, though, Roberts is forced to take a pass after the Horse Creek Fire swept through almost 9,000 of his permitted 17,000 acres in what is known as the “Sherman Allotment” to some and just “Horse Creek” to others.
Roberts was surprisingly cheerful talking about the fire’s aftereffects in the face of disaster.
“It burned completely up,” Roberts said this week of his leased forest grazing. “It burned probably every tree we had on it – but it didn’t burn the grass. We were going to turn out on the sixth (July 6) but there’s too much going on up there right now.”
Roberts, his family and neighbors kept a very close watch on the fire – it drew to within less than two miles of their ranch house – and he could see green grass still on the hillsides but he could also see the flames.
“We got a real good look at it,” he said, adding that at its worst the fire looked closer than it was. “I think everybody was getting nervous about that time.”
Roberts was nervous about more than the flames; thinking about where he could put his cattle for this summer’s grass meant he had to face the harsh reality that as a rancher, he might be ruined. With no other pasture to lease on such short notice, the only grass available was in his fields, planned for cutting in August. “I was faced with just turning my cows into my hay field, selling my cows or buying hay, or somewhere in the middle,” he said. “I was pretty depressed ... all nerved up.”
What happened to make Roberts a happier man was the appearance of Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF) officials who had at first told the Roberts they wouldn’t be able to use the Sherman allotment.
“They flat told us,” Roberts said. “We were up there shortly after the fire started and knew we were in trouble.”
BTNF Big Piney District Ranger Greg Clark said Monday there have been situations before where ranchers lost a summer’s grazing and another place was found for their cattle, temporarily. Such is the case now for the Roberts’ cattle.
“We decided with him going on (to Horse Creek for summer grazing) and the fire in the area, it wouldn’t work,” Clark said. “We try to work with folks.”
Clark said instead the Roberts’ cattle will have a “short turn-around time” on the nearby South Cottonwood allotment, being allowed to start on July 6 as always and come off when “their hay’s up” in late August.
On the Sherman allotment, Roberts would have stayed through Sept. 20 but expects his haying to be done about Aug. 26. He’ll bring the cattle home to graze the cut hay fields and then move to some already-leased fall pasture.
“I thought they did good for me,” he said. “I was really happy. I actually think they could have told me to go straight to hell.”
The South Cottonwood permittee is Cottonwood Ranches, who has taken “non-use” on that allotment but offered the forage for Roberts’ use until he is done haying.
“I’m glad to be able to help,” said Freddy Botur, whose family owns Cottonwood Ranches. “I volunteered it – we haven’t used it in three years so it’s pretty good.”
Roberts is grateful to Clark, Rangers Steve Harmon and Josh Sorenson and Botur.
“They found South Cottonwood and they’re going to let us go there,” he said. “They’ll let us stay there until we get done haying, then we’ll come home. It’ll be a short season up there but at least it’s a place to go. They’re fantastic as far as I’m concerned. It was either that or sell the cows.”
Roberts’ fellow grazing permittee on the Sherman allotment is Bob McNeel of Big Piney, whose ranch is being run by Lee and stepdaughter Deenie Kelly. The McNeel cattle, about 300 pairs, are currently on what is called the Aspen Ridge allotment in the Ryegrass area and will stay there until the end of July and then move to one of their other Bureau of Land Management allotments, she said this week.
“We’ll try rotating,” Kelly said. “If we can keep them up there… as dry as it is, the wind blowing is drying things out.”
Kelly said she wasn’t sure how things are going to work out for the McNeel cattle.
“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s a mess. It really is. We’re just hoping it all works out. Maybe something good will work out. The fences are so run down, there’s really no place to put them right now.”
Rotating among the BLM allotments and back to the ranch’s fields after haying might get them through the summer, she said.
“Let’s hope for the best,” she said. “It’s kind of scary.”
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