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Western Ranchers Dealing With Fire Aftermath

The year 2007 will go down as one of the haves and the have nots, at least as far as rainfall is concerned.

The year 2007 will go down as one of the haves and the have nots, at least as far as rainfall is concerned. Areas of the country that are in the "have" category sometimes have had too much. And the West and parts of the Southeast have shriveled under an unrelenting sky.

The drought in the West, combined with an invasion of cheatgrass that has overtaken millions of acres of rangeland, has created perfect conditions for wildfires in many Western states. Idaho, for example, saw a rangeland fire earlier this year that burned around 800,000 acres. The Milford fire in Utah burned nearly 400,000 acres, making it the largest single fire in Utah history. Fires in both states, as well as other Western states, continue to burn.

And that has created challenges for affected cattlemen. "We've got a lot of folks who rely on rangeland -- federal, state and private -- who were burned out," says Josh Tewalt, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattlemen's Association. "Then you take the loss of forage and compound it with already high hay costs, and you just make the situation worse."

Tewalt says their short-term mission is to find folks a place to go with their animals so their only option isn't to sell out. "But long term, we're going to have some forage issues not just this year, but next year as well."

According to Kathleen Clarke, Utah Department of Ag assistant commissioner, 44% of the state's livestock industry was affected, with most having to find alternative forge to get through the season. "So it's really put a crunch on our ranching industry to figure out how they're going to adjust with nearly half the inventory having to be moved to find alternative vegetation. It's been a challenge."

In Utah, neighbor-to-neighbor help has been seen, with ranchers who have adequate hay stocks offering feed and trucking companies donating the transportation, Clarke says.

"There has been significant reseeding effort going on in Utah," Clarke says. "We want to see the most critical areas stabilized and reseeded and restored as quickly as possible. So we're looking at those lands that we think might rejuvenate themselves naturally and others that it's clear they won't. Then trying to get a seed mix out there that allows us to re-establish these lands very quickly."

The seed mix is not entirely native seeds, she says, because some of the native plants don't stand up well against invaders like cheatgrass. "But over time, we'll try to get back into a more natural seed mix."

Clarke says the fires point out the long-term need to be sensitive to the effects of catastrophic fire on the health of the land and the health of the ag economy. "I think we need to think about the big strategic challenges and I think what it calls for is a real commitment to restoring Western landscapes before they're all burned up."

In the meantime, ranchers are dealing with the effects of the fires. "There are a lot of variables at play and a lot of things that certainly could happen," Tewalt says. "But I think a lot of folks are doing their best to hold on. And that's where we're focusing the majority of our efforts, to find ways to keep these guys whole and keep them going. But I can almost guarantee there's not a one of them who wouldn't rather keep running cattle than get a check from the government." Affected states are working to find assistance for ranchers, Tewalt and Clarke say.

Beyond that, Tewalt thinks the bigger concern is the potential changes to the dynamics of the industry. "How many of these folks with federal and state ground are going to look at the uncertainty caused by the fire and decide that maybe it's better to run yearlings than to have a cow-calf operation?"

Clarke says Western ranchers will weather the hardships, battered and scarred, but not beaten. "Bottom line, it's been a darn tough year. And thankfully, these guys are tough and they understand hardships and hard times and most of them are hanging in there."