"In the upper Great Plains, including eastern Montana, eastern Wyoming, the Panhandle of Nebraska and western South Dakota, drought is really showing its ugly head and we're seeing increased fire activity. In the last week we've seen multiple large fires in eastern Montana, fire activity in and around the Black Hills, a large fire near Harrison, NE and multiple major fires in Wyoming," stated South Dakota Department of Agriculture Chief Fire Management Officer Jim Strain.
Strain continued, noting that Colorado's Front Range has been extremely hard hit. They've sent as much assistance as safety allows to help out.
"What goes unmentioned are the smaller, 500- to 1,000-acre fires that are turning up across the region that are fought and extinguished by local fire departments. These departments are made up of small town folks, farmers and ranchers, and they are putting in a lot of unpaid hours to keep all these small fires from getting big. Those small fires can still have a huge impact on pastures and cropland, but due to the good work of local volunteer fire departments, are being put out before they reach a critical stage. We are very appreciative of everyone involved in getting those out as well," Strain said.
The Missoula National Weather Service Station explained that in Montana, more than 260,000 acres have burned in the last week due to large and small blazes. The average number of acres burned in the state is between 180,000 and 200,000 acres annually. Wyoming's multiple large-scale fires alone had over 140,000 acres on fire as of press time. The Black Hills National Forest in western South Dakota has also seen multiple fires in the last week, and the situation in Colorado is still dire.
"In the Northern Rockies region, as of June 29, we had a total of 784 fire starts for 2012, burning a total of 260,630 acres. It's tremendously above normal, and conditions we're seeing now are much more typical of early August," noted Northern Rockies Coordination Center Meteorologist Bryan Henry.
"We also had two years of abundant moisture, and our cattle herd is at the lowest numbers in the nation since the 1950s. We've seen pastures that have had a lot of use over the past two years, but they still aren't grazed down like they used to be and there is old grass standing in a lot of areas. Even if it looks kind of green in areas, fires are running through it. I'm not suggesting overgrazing as a solution, but we just haven't had the normal grazing pressure we've historically seen, which is adding fuel to these fires," Strain added.
Despite increased forage production the last two years, Wyoming producers are already moving cattle according to Wyoming Stock Growers Association (WSGA) Executive Vice President Jim Magagna.
"I talked with Torrington Livestock Auction last week, and in the month of May they normally market 3,500 feeder cattle. This May they marketed 18,500 feeder cattle," Magagna said. "I've talked with a lot of people who run pasture cattle that are getting rid of at least part, if not all of them." Some cattle were turned out, only to be gathered and sold after grazing for one to two months.
"I've also visited with a number of people who are selling replacement heifers they kept last fall, and/or cleaning up their herds early in order to keep their basic herd intact. But it's only July 1, and we have a lot of summer to go," he added.
In western Wyoming, producers who deal with public land leases are in a mixed situation. Magagna explained that those who go to BLM early, then on to a Forest Service lease are mostly well off as the high country is relatively good this year. Those who summer on the desert are worried about running out of grass or being moved off their leases early.
"For anyone running livestock on a winter lease in western Wyoming, which are a few cattle producers and several sheep producers, it's looking really sad at this point. The winter range from Rawlings to the Utah border hasn't produced much of anything," Magagna stated.
The WSGA has been making calls on behalf of producers to help find pasture available in North Dakota. While Magagna hasn't heard of any cattle being trucked out of state yet, he said it if the price is right he expects it to occur before summer ends.
Montana Cattlemen's Association president and rancher Mark Boone paints a slightly better picture of the year's impact on producers in his state, explaining that parts of northern Montana are having a good year, while parts of southern Montana are extremely dry.
"We're currently doing okay here around Ingomar because we had some carryover grass from the last couple of nice years. Our range is in good shape as a result of those years, but we are relying on older grass, which will affect weaning weights and milking ability this year," he said.
"This fall and winter may be a little different story as we won't have much dryland hay. Anyone getting a half ton per acre is pretty happy this year, and if we have an early winter or something, people will be culling hard and getting rid of some numbers," Boone said.
As July gets underway, conditions are expected to stay hot and dry, with thunderstorms continuing. Another high ridge is also expected that will have temperatures over 100 degrees in western South Dakota. The entire upper Great Plans region will remain highly susceptible to fire as a result of these critical weather conditions.