From the pages of
The Sublette County Journal
Volume 4, Number 48 - 7/27/00
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Not much to cut. A swather at rest near Boulder Tuesday.
Dry Summer Taking Toll on Local Ranchers
Southern Sublette County is hit hardest
by Jennifer Binning

"It's dreadful down here," said Nancy Espenscheid of Big Piney, when asked about the dry conditions that Sublette County has endured this summer. "There has been no significant rainfall here since last July," she adds, noting that on May 31 they thought they had a good rain storm hit the Piney area, but when she checked her rain gauge, only 1/10 of an inch of moisture had fallen. Her gauge measures down to 1/100 Th. of an inch, and that sprinkle at the end of May was the only water that she has seen in the tube all summer.

All one needs to do is take a stroll in the sage to know that most of Sublette County is tinder dry. Even though the ditch riders have been turning all the water loose that they can, the hay in some areas just never got a good start this summer due to the cold snap in June. The combination of the cold spring and lack of water has caused enough concern that Bob Thompson of Big Piney approached the County Commissioners at their last meeting and asked them to ask Governor Geringer to declare Sublette County a drought disaster area. "The creeks have been regulated for most of the summer, and half of our land has had no water. The other half has not had much growth because of the cold growing season," said Mr. Thompson in an interview on Monday. "The animals are fine so far, but we had to move our cattle earlier than usual." Mr. Thompson hopes to get 1/2 of his normal hay crop, "but right now it only looks like we will get 1/3." He will have a better idea of the actual numbers when they begin to hay after the fair in August.

The weather has even effected the acres of Big Piney rancher Bill Barney's hay that is irrigated using a pivot sprinkler system. "It has been so hot and windy, the water evaporates before it hits the ground," he said. Overall, the Barney's hay crop is down 1/3 to 1/2 of normal, and they are seriously considering selling off some of their herd to help "minimize the damage," while some other neighbors will be trying to buy more hay to make it through the winter.

In Boulder, Lary Lozier said he has had plenty of water this summer, but the cold growing season, combined with hot, dry winds later on, did not help out the growth in his fields. "We should have a solid average hay yield this year," he said, but the East Fork and Silver Creek looked "awful dry" to him and he worries about his neighbors who pull water from those drainages.

Beckie Richie confirmed Lary's concern was a valid one, and said that it has taken about four skinny windrows to make one row worth taking a run at with the bailer. The Richies get their water from the New and East Fork Rivers, which are running pretty low. "Last year we had a bumper crop. We have gone from one extreme to the next," said Ms. Richie, adding that they would be lucky to get 1/2 of the normal crop. Right now it is looking like 1/3 of normal. "It is pretty sad," she says with resignation.

In Daniel, the outlook is a bit more positive. Charles Price, who draws his water from the Green River, says he's doing better than a lot of others, noting that "they ran out of water in June" south of him. "I got what I needed, not what I wanted," he said on Tuesday, noting that where he had water, the growth was ok, but on the high spots in the field "the grass didn't hardly grow. It just turned green and stayed there."

Mr. Price, along with other ranchers in the area has begun to hay a bit early this year. He feels the grass is maturing about 10 days early, and is afraid that if he leaves it in the field too long, the hay will loose its nutritional value.

"We are between a rock and a hard spot," says Daniel rancher Norm Pape, who has also begun to hay earlier than normal. The hay "looks better than I expected where we had water, but it won't be a normal crop. It's not good."

Norm and his crew have been hustling to get the hay cut before it burns up. "Some is beginning to burn. Usually we cut it when we get to it. It has never been a problem before. Now with this hot weather, the stuff is really wanting to grow," but they have to cut it before it is too late.

The dry conditions not only effect the ranchers who hay, but also the growing numbers of ranchers who run stocker operations and only use their fields for pasture. The Espenscheids in Big Piney run one of these operations, and they get paid by the weight gain of the animals, or the time spent on their pasture. The slow growth of the grass this summer has not been conducive to weight gain in the cattle they run for other producers, and the Espenscheids have already begun to sell some of their own stock so they can keep as many cattle contracts on their land as possible.

"It has been a struggle" this year, notes Nancy, who estimates that they may be out of cattle by September 1st, a full month earlier than usual. "The cattle market is still strong, and hopefully that will save peoples bacon."

Ranchers aren't the only people in business being affected by this years drought. "The rivers are pretty damn low," reports John Ross of Two Rivers Emporium in Pinedale. "The Green River is running about 400 CFS (cubic feet per second), I would guess," when normal for this time of the year is closer to 1500-1800 CFS, says Mr. Ross. "These are 1988 flows." New Fork Lake is very low, and it is the same with Willow Lake, he says, and Fremont is starting to drop, but with haying season beginning a bit early for some, the irrigation flows should be shutting down a bit.

For now, however, the fishing is "fantastic." Within a month, however, Mr. Ross expects it's going to be "tough." Mr. Ross remembers that in the summer of '88, he spent more time out of the boat, dragging it over gravel bars than he did fishing. This has a tendency to aggravate some landowners, but the floaters have the right to get out and push their boats off of an obstruction, and a gravel bar does qualify as an obstruction.

According to Prill Mecham at the BLM and Tom Johnson at the Forest Service, there have been no closures or restrictions on public lands other than Game and Fish lands, where open fires are restricted.

"The forest is tinder dry," said Mr. Johnson on Monday, "and unless things change, the Forest Service will request a Class 1 closure" on it's lands in the next few weeks. Sportsmen and recreationalists will have use spark arresters on chainsaws, and open fires will not be allowed, along with other restrictions. Mr. Johnson says that people have been very good about being careful in the forest due to the dryness, and foresters have only found three camp fires that had been left unattended so far this year.

"Nationally, we just went to a preparedness level 4, which allows us to mobilize military ships to suppress fires if need be." The next level, level 5, has every available person mobilized and fighting fires, and was last designated in 1996, 94 and of course 88.

"The indices are really high," said Mr. Johnson. The 3-6 inch fuels have only 9-10% moisture content, while 15-18% is considered normal. "Fires are everywhere right now, We just need an ignition source."

County Extension Agent Eric Petersen has been gathering information for the County Commissioners next meeting, where he will urge them to declare Sublette County a drought disaster area. "Nearly everyone has some shortfall in their forage supply," he said. Other counties in Wyoming considering the same thing, and Mr. Petersen feels that the "more folks squeaking, the more likely there will be some grease."

What has Norm Pape concerned, however, is the possibility that "We might have one of these awful droughts back to back. Then all the surplus hay will be gone, and that is a pretty difficult problem to overcome."

Meanwhile, the forecast for the rest of the week is more of the same. No rain in sight even though haying season has begun.

Photo credits:  Joyce Bohm

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