April 17, 2005

Rapid City Journal

Drought crimps grazing on federal lands

By Steve Miller

Drought is again prompting the U.S. Forest Service to sharply reduce the number of cattle allowed to graze on federal land in western South Dakota this summer.

The Forest Service is cutting back on grazing in an attempt to encourage recovery of the grass and other vegetation on the nearly 2 million acres of federally owned land in two national forests and three national grasslands in western South Dakota, range management officials say.

The grazing cutbacks will affect more than 600 private ranchers who will have to find other pasture or feed for thousands of head of cattle.

Unless significant rain falls this spring, many ranchers will likely be forced to pare down their herds even further. Many ranchers across the western half of the state already have had to sell off parts of their herds during the drought, which began for some as early as 2000.

In the Fall River District of Buffalo Gap National Grassland, most of the 127 permittees will have to reduce their stocking rates by 25 percent or more, district ranger Mike McNeill said. However, McNeill said there is no blanket cutback. Each allotment is being assessed and adjusted individually. Some will be cut by as much as 35 percent.

In eastern Fall River County alone, ranchers in the Pioneer Grazing Association have permits to graze for 32,000 animal unit months, according to association president Dave Dunbar of Oelrichs. An animal unit month, or AUM, represents the forage required for a cow and her calf for one month. A 25 percent cut means about 8,000 fewer AUMs.

"They're going to have to find another home," Dunbar said of the displaced cattle. Without more rain, ranchers will have to ship their cattle to pastures they rent elsewhere or sell the animals.

"There was a lot of cattle that left this country already last fall," Dunbar said. "That's a lot of pounds of beef we're not going to be selling. It's going to have an economic impact on local communities."

Normally, Leonard Benson of Oral runs about 150 head of cattle on his federal allotment in the Hay Canyon area east of Oral. This year, that number will drop to about 112 cattle.

Benson said the grass is short on his national grassland allotment but even shorter on his private ground. Without significant rain this spring, he likely will have to sell cattle. "We'll wait it out as long we can," Benson said.

Neither Dunbar nor Benson blamed the Forest Service for the grazing cutbacks.

"You've got to protect the resource," Dunbar said.

Benson said he understands that the Forest Service must please environmentalists and other users of the grasslands in addition to the ranchers. He praised the Fall River District Ranger staff for trying to work with the grazers.

"We've got to look at the middle picture, whether we like it or not," Benson said. "Why should we want to devastate it, take it down as far as some of the private land?"

McNeill, the district ranger, said some allotments are in better shape than others. But some have such short grass, he said, they "look like a carpet."

Part of the grazing reduction will come in the form of a later "turnout" date. Ranchers won't be able to turn their cattle out onto the national grassland until June 1 at the earliest. Most will start June 15, McNeill said.

Range officials in most districts say some grazers have voluntarily reduced the number of cattle to help preserve the grass and allow it a better chance of recovery. Some won't graze any cattle on the federal ground this year.

The biggest help, of course, will come from Mother Nature - eventually. McNeill said the Fall River district staff analyzed the growing-season precipitation data for the past 60 months. "It's been getting worse every year," he said.

Last year, southwestern South Dakota was among the driest parts of the state.

This year hasn't gotten off to a good start, either. As of last Sunday, the Oelrichs area was already 1 inch below average precipitation for the year to date.

McNeill said it will take three or four years of normal precipitation to restore the rangeland.

The situation is similar throughout western South Dakota.

* In the Wall Ranger District of Buffalo Gap National Grassland, grazing reductions will range from 30 percent to 70 percent for the 75 to 80 permittees, depending on local conditions, according to rangeland management specialist Mieke Bruch. Most cutbacks will be about 30 percent, Bruch said. "Everybody on our district is getting some sort of reduction," she said.

Recent rains have helped some locations, Bruch said. The grassland near Kadoka is greener than it was last year at this time, she said, but the grass is short.

* On Fort Pierre National Grassland south of Pierre, turnout will be about June 1, compared to May 1 or May 15 in normal years, according to rangeland management specialist Tonya Weisbeck. But she said officials will determine a turnout date based on range readiness. She said precipitation has been spotty on the 116,000-acre grassland. One automated weather station showed only .33 inch since Jan. 1, but some ranchers said they've had several inches of moisture, Weisbeck said.

She said there has been some resistance from ranchers to the grazing reductions.

* On the 154,000-acre Dakota Prairie National Grassland's Grand River Ranger District near Lemmon, stocking rates will be cut by about 15 percent, according to range management specialist Kurt Hansen. Rates could be cut more on some allotments, depending on range conditions, he said. Turnout will be delayed until May 15 or June 1 for the 108 permittees, depending on whether the area gets more moisture, Hansen said.

He said the area got some wet snow in March and early April, but that has been about it this winter. "We still have to get some more moisture," Hansen said.

"My biggest concern is that we now have some topsoil moisture, but we don't have any subsoil moisture. We really need to get that recharge to carry us through this season."

Hansen said that without significant rain, grazers likely will have to pull their cattle off the grassland early again this year.

He said most ranchers aren't resisting the cutbacks because they know the drought conditions warrant them.

* On the Sioux Ranger District of Custer National Forest in Harding County, grazing will begin at 70 percent of normal on the forest's 74,000 acres in South Dakota, district ranger Rhonda O'Byrne said.

In Black Hills National Forest, grazing allotments will be adjusted on a case-by-case basis, rangeland management specialist Craig Beckner said. About 260 permittees have cattle that graze on 90 percent of the 1.2 million-acre forest. Some of them will put fewer cattle on their allotments, some will go in late, and some will come out early, Beckner said. Some have already pared down their herds, he said.

The Bureau of Land Management is not mandating grazing reductions on the 280,000 acres it oversees in Harding, Butte and Meade counties, according to rangeland management specialist Steve Bell. "We're just monitoring the situation," Bell said Thursday. Many of the approximately 470 permittees have voluntarily cut back on their stocking rates or even completely skipped grazing for a season.