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Dry summer, dry fall and dry winter
Livestock growers might have to consider running fewer animals on public ranges this year if drought conditions persist. Photo by Wayne Nicholls

Dry summer, dry fall and dry winter

Feb 5, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Grazers keeping an anxious eye on range moisture conditions

Last year's drought caused problems for ranchers and continues to cast uncertainty on Fremont County's livestock industry for the year to come.

Many thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service land are under lease for livestock grazing. Low moisture reduces forage for cattle, sheep and wildlife on those public lands.

BLM Lander field office manager Richard Vander Voet said most of the grazing lands are under stress.

"Pretty much every single allotment is in extreme drought," he said.

Ranchers running cattle or sheep on BLM land worked with the federal agency to reduce forage use. Techniques to limit grazing included turning out animals late, lowering the numbers of livestock, changing pasture rotations and removing cattle, horses and sheep early.

The BLM has the authority to force ranchers to pull their animals off the land. Voet said permittees cooperated when the BLM decided the range land could not take more grazing.

"Last year we didn't have to order anybody off," he said.

"Everybody knew it was time to go home."

In a letter to grazing permittees dated Nov. 28, he wrote that across the Lander field office precipitation levels were about 25 percent of normal.

In that same letter, he said the BLM is continuing to monitor conditions, but so far the drought has continued. He also asked ranchers to contemplate running fewer animals in 2013 or implement other methods of limiting grazing.

Brad Russell is the range specialist for the southern zone of the Shoshone National Forest, which comprises the Wind River and Washakie ranger districts and stretches from South Pass to Togwotee. Last year in that territory, 3,620 cattle and 302 horses grazed on 28 allotments, though 5,600 cattle, 302 horses and 1,150 sheep are permitted in those pastures.

The National Forest had a low-growth year for forage, but Russell thinks its grazing land is in a little better shape than the BLM's land because the forest gets more moisture.

Lower elevations in the National Forest were also worse off than pastures at 9,000 or 10,000 feet.

"They've got a lot of snow," Russell said. "It's well watered up there."

Despite the range providing little forage, he does not think pastures in the forest were over grazed.

"We've got a good group of permittees," Russell said. "They used appropriately."

Some ran fewer animals, and most rotated through their pastures more quickly than normal, generally finishing a week or two early, Russell said.

He said the ranchers also took measures to reduce grazing without having to be asked. Russell prevented from turning out on only one small allotment because that pasture's water sources were dry.

If there is not more precipitation in 2013, permittees will have to reduce use further, but Russell said he is not ready to make any decisions yet.

"We just have to take it when it gets here," he said.

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