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Drying Out: Drought in the West

July 30, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT

TOM BEARDEN: Auctioneers were working overtime at the La Junta, Colorado Livestock Company last week. More than ten times the normal volume of cattle were up for sale.

AUCTIONEER: $880, $885, $885, $885…

AUCTIONEER: …$890, $890, $895. Would you give me $900? Would you give me $900? Would you give me $895 so I can get $900? Would you give me a smile?

TOM BEARDEN: But there were very few smiles, despite all the business. Ranchers from five surrounding states are selling out because of the drought. Lucille Durham sold the entire herd that she and her late husband had spent 47 years perfecting.

LUCILLE DURHAM, Rancher: I ran out of grass, and I don’t have any feed, and it’s too expensive to buy, if you can find it. We’re not going to be able to plant feed because we don’t have the moisture to get the feed up.

TOM BEARDEN: Mrs. Durham isn’t alone. Over the past few months, government climatologists have used computers to chart the spread of a devastating drought across much of the Rocky Mountain states and the Southwest. Large parts of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, have experienced the driest 12 months on record: Fields are parched near Dodge City, Kansas; streambeds are dry in Ship Rock, New Mexico; the mountains near Salt Lake City are brown. Normally this time of year, there’d be a lot more snow on the slopes.

In Colorado, ranchers, like 83- year-old Lloyd Hall are comparing it to the legendary Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

TOM BEARDEN: How bad is this drought?

LLOYD HALL, Rancher: The worst I ever saw. The only time I seen it worse when I was a kid, in 1934.

TOM BEARDEN: How is it affecting people?

LLOYD HALL: Well, it’s… they’re having to sell their livelihood. They’re taking everything they’ve got, they have to sell everything got, you see, because they have no feed, you can’t… and feed’s too high to buy.

TOM BEARDEN: So when the rain doesn’t come, the grass doesn’t grow.

LLOYD HALL: The grass doesn’t grow, as simple as that.

TOM BEARDEN: Marshall Frasier’s grass isn’t growing either. He owns a 30,000-acre ranch 150 miles north of La Junta.

TOM BEARDEN: How high should this grass be now?

MARSHALL FRASIER, Former President, Colorado Livestock Association: Oh, this grass should be about this high this time of year. And these cattle have eaten it down. Ordinarily, they’d never, never eat it down this far. Ranchers should take half and leave half. Because if you take… eat it clear down, it starts destroying the root system.

TOM BEARDEN: With no grass to feed their cattle, ranchers are selling their herds to other cattlemen who live farther North and East, where there’s been plenty of moisture. They’re getting a decent price per pound, but it’s much less than they would have gotten if they’d been able to grow their cattle to full weight. What ranchers see on the ground, Dr. Roger Pielke sees with the aid of computers and satellite photographs. He’s the state climatologist for Colorado.

ROGER A. PIELKE, Sr., State Climatologist, Colorado State University: The more yellow the colors are in this image indicates the drier it is with respect to average conditions, in this case, for the past six months.

TOM BEARDEN: And it’s the whole state?

ROGER A. PIELKE, Sr.: It’s almost the whole state. The only parts of the state that got some water at the end of may were in the very northern foothills of… and the northern mountains of the state, but the rest of the state has been very dry for this period.

TOM BEARDEN: Pielke says there had been longer, drier periods in the past, but that this drought has opened people’s eyes to how things have changed.

ROGER A. PIELKE, Sr.: This drought is actually not that unusual. If we look at the records over the last 100 years, we’ve had several droughts that have been longer than this. What our concern is, however, is that the impacts seem to have come on us very quickly. So it may suggest that we’re more vulnerable to drought now than we were, say, 50 years ago.

TOM BEARDEN: Pielke says 20 years of relatively high precipitation has generated a lot of plant growth in the mountains. Those plants use water that, in years past, has run off into streams and rivers. The result is less water available for irrigation. No one can predict when the drought might end. It could end this winter, or continue for years. But for many cattle ranchers, it’s already been too long.

TOM BEARDEN: What do you think the long-term effect will be on people who are forced to sell-out completely?

LLOYD HALL.: It depends on how well they’re situated. If they’re young people starting out, they’re broke. And a lot of people that haven’t prepared for a drought and laid any in reserve, they’re in bad shape. The only people that can survive is the people have been in there all their life and can handle a thing like this, see? They’ve saved enough reserve back to where they can… and they’ve got credit enough to get back in. But a young man that’s starting in, he’s already got his credit used up, so he’s in bad trouble.

TOM BEARDEN: Don Honey, who runs the La Junta auction house, says the sell-off of the herds will be felt for years to come.

DON HONEY, La Junta Livestock Company: We sell the kids of the calves that we’re selling now. So that’s what’s going to hurt us in the long run: Is that they sell the factory; they sell the mother. Sell the mother cow and that leaves us without, without selling anything come the fall, or… it’s going to hurt us for two to three years down the road if they keep… if it keeps staying this dry.

TOM BEARDEN: Marshall Frasier says, in the long run, what hurts the most is to lose what he calls “the genetics of the herds.” Ranchers spend decades breeding their cattle; honing their characteristics to maximize already-thin profit margins.

MARSHALL FRASIER: This is a problem with ranchers, is they spent their lifetime improving their herds, and then if they have to sell them, you either… too expensive to go try to buy that kind of genetics back, or you gradually build them yourself, and it takes another lifetime.

TOM BEARDEN: Frasier, who is past President of the Colorado Livestock Association, says the entire rural economy is suffering.

MARSHALL FRASIER: Our small towns are hurting real bad because… and there are some farming areas around here, and the machinery dealers are hurting because people don’t have money to buy machinery with. And so, you know, it hurts the whole economy.

TOM BEARDEN: The new federal farm bill contains some funding for drought emergencies. And the Colorado state legislature has already passed a tax relief bill for people forced to sell their herds. But none of that will help ranchers like Lucille Durham, whose cattle pens are now empty. She may lease out her pastures when the rain finally rejuvenates the grass, but she won’t try to start rebuilding her herd. It’ll be up to her children and grandchildren to try to preserve the family’s way of life– ranching on the dusty plains of Eastern Colorado.