From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 7, Number 16 - July 12, 2007
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Forecast: Hot & dry
Part 1: Summer drought takes toll; ‘drought-disaster’ status in works for county
by Joy Ufford

Grass usually emerald green in July is toasting to a crispy brown throughout Sublette County.

Once-luxurious lawns and waist-high hayfields alike are suffering from an extended lack of rain and overly high seasonal temperatures, compounded by warm winds that seem to pull out every drop of moisture from the air. The result is what could be the worst drought year in a series of dry seasons.

The county’s drought is so bad this year that, at one of their next two meetings, Sublette County commissioners will present a resolution declaring the county a drought-disaster area, according to Commissioner Joel Bousman.

“We’ll ask the governor to declare Sublette County a drought-disaster area and I think from the governor’s perspective it’s pretty much a formality,” Bousman said. The resolution only needs adoption by commissioners to be enacted.

“(Drought) has huge impacts, especially on an agricultural economy,” he said.

Sublette County is experiencing combined effects of two kinds of drought – the “hydrologic” (dealing with snow pack and affecting irrigation) and “forage” (more with seasonal rain), he explained in simple terms.

“Forage is getting so dry there’s a lack of availability in some places,” Bousman said. “It’s so dry nothing wants to eat it.”

Making hay

A Boulder-area rancher, Bousman spent Tuesday in his shop tuning up their haying equipment. The mower hit the hay field Wednesday – about 10 days earlier than normal.

“If there’s any such thing as normal,” Bousman joked.

The Bousmans and three East Fork neighboring families, whose ancestors homesteaded in the East Fork Valley in the late 1800s, deal with the current drought by sticking together and cooperating with everything from turning their cattle out on grazing allotments to sharing what water they get from the East Fork River, he said.

“We’ve been doing things together for more than 100 years,” Bousman said. “There’s no water storage here; we get less water per acre than most places in the county. There isn’t enough water to fight over, so why worry?”

In a dry year, that average amount per acre drops dangerously and some fields and pastures have been dried out since it got hot, he said. “It’s really dry down here,” he said. “We’ve been out of having substantial irrigation water for two weeks. It’s just gone – when it goes, it goes.”

The water they had left was shut off to keep their center-pivot sprinkler system running “and there’s not enough left to irrigate with,” Bousman said.

Some hay fields are burned and not even worth cutting, he added, but everyone is going to save what grass they can.

“Everybody is trying to get ready to start haying as soon as they can,” he said. Everybody here in the East Fork Valley is trying to get started.”

At the northern end of the county in Hoback Basin, there is a different landscape and climate, usually with more rain, more snow, cooler temperatures and less wind. One common factor this year uniting the county is the current drought.

Little Jennie Ranch manager Gerry Endecott is also preparing for an early hay harvest.

“We’ll start next week,” he said. “We usually start around the 20th so it’s not so much earlier. We don’t have an abundance of it though. I’m going to hay everything I can hay.”

The Little Jennie is about out of water as well, he said, which could mean a very short fall forage season for cattle returning off forest grazing allotments.

“Most of our fall grass is off the hay meadows,” Endecott said. “It’s going to take some water to get it going again for fall.”

Endecott, who first moved to the Big Piney area in 1969, has managed the Little Jennie for 14 years. He remembers the drought of 1977 but believes this year is even worse because of the cumulative effect of several years’ drought.

“It’s as dry as I’ve ever seen it since I’ve lived in this country,” he said. “It’s unreal. Water doesn’t go very far. We’ll have a short hay crop and short hay.”

Rancher Cat Urbigkit runs cows and calves as well as sheep, which are also being hit by this drought, she said.

“We ranch along the New Fork River about 16 miles east of Marbleton off the Big Piney Cutoff, both cow/calf and sheep,” Urbigkit said. “We didn't even go out onto our cattle allotment this year so we're using up meadow we would have hayed. So now we're going to buy more hay to get everything through the winter.

“This drought is really stressing the salt sage and the sagebrush, which are important for our domestic sheep herd. We'll keep rotating pastures but know that feeding hay is the only thing that will save our range, which is mostly private property.”

Wildlife worries

The lack of local hay, an anticipated regional shortage and high costs to buy it elsewhere will not only affect ranchers but wildlife as well, according to Wyoming Game & Fish (G&F) Information Officer Mark Gocke.

G&F buys hay every year for its 22 elk feedgrounds to ensure winter-bound herds are fed throughout the hard months and this year, feedground personnel are finding that hay, usually plentiful, will be harder to find.

“A couple of hay producers are backing out this year,” Gocke said. “We’ll have to truck it further; it costs more to buy. We feel the brunt of it financially that way.”

Summer drought has ramifications into winter for wildlife, he explained, and a hard winter after a dry summer could kill weakened animals. And when herd numbers go down, so do the number of hunting permits issued, he said.

Grasses at lower and open elevations that big game could forage for in fall and winter are drying out too quickly, he said. The lack of water and high temperatures also affect shrubs’ nutritious “leader” or new growth, important winter feed for mule deer and pronghorn.

“Mule deer in the Sublette and Wyoming Range herds continue to struggle,” he said. “Winter is the hardest time on them; you lose more animals then when there’s nothing to eat in winter. Shrubs are just a fraction of what they should be. If we get a hard winter, then of course that would compound things.”

Now, antelope and mule deer with their fawns search out grass on irrigated pastures and private lands with water, he said. The females and young need to maintain health and body weight to enter winter as healthy animals and survive what could be a bad winter, he said.

“They’ll be bringing fawns into the world with does who don’t have very good milk production, next year,” Gocke said.

Elk and moose are not hit as hard because they graze in riparian areas at higher elevations where summer heat hasn’t burned off grass yet, he said. “Elk numbers are as good as we’ve had in modern times.”

Drought effects on sage grouse are a concern because they are being closely watched as a potential candidate for federal species protection. Mountain grouse, which prefer higher elevations, aren’t hurt as badly as sage grouse, Gocke said.

“A year like this, you’re not going to have the good high-protein vegetation or the bugs that are found in it,” he said. “There’s a good chance this is going to be a ‘down’ year for sage grouse. They are pretty responsive to moisture.”

Ground water and grazing

Another concern for wildlife and livestock both is ground water, or lack thereof, as streams dry up, river and lake levels drop and springs run lower than usual, according to Steve Harmon, Bridger-Teton National Forest natural resources specialist in the Big Piney (BP) Ranger District.

He’s seen drought affect the forest since 1998, he said.

“Stream water is not holding up,” he said of BP grazing allotments. “We’re even looking at moving our horses out of our Forest Service administration pastures (in Bondurant). The water there from a natural spring is drying up.”

Many of the smaller creeks are gone, dried up, he said. “There just wasn’t any run-off coming off ... there just wasn’t much up (snow) there to come off.”

His office sent a “heads-up letter” to BP grazing permittees this spring warning of “a possible bad drought” and suggesting ranchers reduce cattle numbers, run shorter seasons or “look for other opportunities” for summer grass, Harmon said.

“We had a lot of permittees reduce their numbers voluntarily based on what we were telling them and what they were seeing,” he said. “People around here know what’s going on.”

Permittees turned out on schedule in June and are rotating through pastures more quickly than usual to avoid overgrazing dying grass, he said. They will probably need to come off the forest up to a month early, in September instead of October, Harmon said.

Rain won’t help anything now, he added.

“Once the grass toasts off it ain’t going to do any good,” Harmon said. “It’s too late, too late at this point.”

Ranch foreman Endecott runs cattle on BP allotments and said that he and fellow permittees in Bondurant are moving cattle through pastures more often – sometimes daily - much more quickly than in past years.

“We have to move the cattle earlier than normal,” he said. “The mountains are pretty good but water is going to be pretty tough to find. The springs and little ponds we normally have, we don’t have an abundance of this year.”

Bousman, who with his neighbors just turned their cattle out last week on the Silver Creek allotment in the Jackson/Pinedale Ranger District, said that he believes their grazing will hold up fairly well.

“We’re way under on our numbers and the feed’s good up there right now,” he said. “If it gets too dry, our cow will just come home anyway. They’re in for a surprise – they usually graze off our hayed meadows.”

Drought data

The likelihood of western Wyoming coming out of the current drought by August is slim to none, according to estimates from the National Climate Data Center (NCDC).

Wyoming State Climatologist Steve Gray said that predictions like these are not very relevant.

“When you get down into numbers like that, actually the digits don’t mean much,” Gray said. “You just don’t have a reasonable chance.”

In June, NCDC posted numbers that put the severity of our local and regional drought into perspective.

“The probability that the drought will end in two months” (August): a miniscule zero to 1.5 percent. The percentage of normal precipitation required to end the drought in August: from 200 to 2,853 percent.

The precipitation required to “end current conditions in two months” (by August) for this part of the state translates to 6.01 to 9 inches of rain, with other parts of the state looking at a need for 9.01 to 12 inches in the northeast and south corners and 3.01 to 6 inches in the Yellowstone/Park County area.

“Six to nine inches of rain for parts of western Wyoming is as much as you expect in nine months to a year,” Gray said. “It’s way behind that.”

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