Healing slow for ranchers affected by grass fire
Welcome moisture has brightened the mood and landscape just a bit for producers dealing with the after-effects of an approximately 11,000 acre grass fire that began as a “prescribed burn” on federal land but broke containment lines on a hot, windy April day. Estimates are that the Perkins County, South Dakota, burn affected about one-third federal and two-thirds private property.
Bob Hermann, a rural Lemmon, SD, rancher who lost a substantial amount of grass and fence on his private property and on grazing association allotments, said the burned areas are greening up as a result of the recent rain but that the grass hasn’t grown enough to be useful yet.
Bare pastures due to grass lost in the fire, coupled with severe drought conditions have forced Hermann to make some tough management decisions. He, his son Ryan and his daughter Laurie (and her husband Eric) have culled their cows a lot deeper and sold a lot earlier this summer than they normally would have, he said. “We looked for grass to rent but didn’t find any. We aren’t able to utilize any of our private pasture that was burned. There are no fences and no grass. We’re hoping to get some fall grazing if the fence is functional then.” Hermann went on to say that, for the first time, their heifers will be drylotted this summer due to a lack of available forage. He explained that the U.S. Forest Service made a commitment, shortly after the fire, to get them “back to whole,” but “nothing has been done,” Hermann said.
He said that USFS representatives were looking to help find pasture but “nothing came of that. They never came across any for us.” He adds that they haven’t been compensated for any emergency feed they purchased to supplement their cattle following the fire, nor have any of their private fences been repaired.
One of the biggest challenges, Hermann said, is the time he has spent this spring on out-of-the-ordinary projects – moving cattle around, sorting and hauling cattle for sale, putting cattle (his own or maybe his neighbor’s) back where they belong – it all takes time which is a precious commodity for any rancher in the springtime.
Hermann said if he were asked to prioritize his concerns to the USFS, he would ask them to “get a fencing crew and get some fences fixed, to restore fences like they were.” He also explained that he would have liked for them to find pasture for him but now that they have sold and moved cattle around, they are situated for now.
Laurie (Hermann) Caspers and her husband Eric, Bob Hermann’s daughter and son-in-law, who farm and ranch near Lake Preston, SD, generally utilize their own private pasture as well as USFS lease near the Hermann ranch in Perkins County for about 150 head of mother cows. About 95 percent of their private land burned, she estimates.
Caspers said some of their wounds from the fire were “reopened” this past week as she and her husband loaded cow-calf pairs on a semi trailer and hauled them to their Eastern South Dakota farm in preparation for market. Two cows went down in the corral during the sorting process. “There was a four-year-old cow that took several stutter steps, and then dropped. Her legs shook and she frothed at the mouth. We tried to get her up to keep her from bloating, but we knew in a short time that it wasn’t going to happen so we backed away and let her be. Then about a half hour later, she got up and stumbled around,” Caspers said that cow lived but the next day a three-year-old cow did “the exact same thing” and died about 45 minutes later. The local veterinarian took samples, later informing them that the cow’s airway was full of black soot and that her lungs were inflated, something he’d never seen on a dead cow.
“The vet said he kind of expected this kind of thing on a 100 degree day but not on an 80 degree day, and they expect these problems will get worse as the weather warms up,” Caspers said.
U.S. Forest Service Ranger Paul Hancock, based out of the Lemmon, SD, office said that he or his staff has “met repeatedly” with each landowner and they have “talked about their needs, what we can do to help.”
Hancock said that they helped find spring pasture for two affected landowners, plus they had arranged for a calving pasture for Hermann’s to use.
“The ones that have identified a need and asked for help, we have helped,” Hancock said. Regarding private fences that were burned, Hancock said, “What we’ve done is partnered with the NRCS and helped make money available through the EQIP program.” Hancock didn’t know what percentage of the cost of a new or rebuilt fence would be covered under the program.
Grand River Cooperative Grazing Association (GRCGA) President Tim Smith, Lodgepole, SD, said he spoke with NRCS District Conservationist Seth Skogen, who explained that the NRCS EQUP program money is leftover or excess funding from the state that is made available for people who have been burned out by wildfire such as the F.S. Pautre wildfire. It has been used twice before in Perkins County. He said that the ranchers impacted by the Pautre wildfire have until June 21, 2013 to identify their projects and apply for the funds. Smith said that this is strictly an NRCS program; the Forest Service did not contribute.
Smith also said that several of the association directors met on April 29, with Dennis Neitzke, Grassland Supervisor, Bismarck, ND, to discuss private landowners’ needs and concerns following the fire.
The tort claims process, which landowners as well as the association were advised by the offices of Senator Thune (R-SD), Congresswoman Noem (R-SD) and Senator Heitkamp (D-ND) to use in their efforts to recover losses, will take two years to develop and then probably three to four years to produce any re-imbursements, Smith said.
He added that directors are disappointed in the quality of the fence being put up by the USFS, as well as the forest service’s lack of responsibility for the fence around the perimeter of the federal land. “A couple of years ago the forest service told us they owned the fence on some other pastures but now they have told us they have ‘no idea’ who owns the fence around the federal pastures that burned.”
Smith said that one director mentioned that he had witnessed the forest service fencing crew setting posts with an “ice auger” which doesn’t dig deep enough holes, and then cutting the tops off the posts to give the appearance of deep-set posts.
Smith went on to say that the USFS, in their briefing paper following the fire, said “The objectives on the Grand River National Grassland were to reduce hazardous fuels and remove standing dead crested wheatgrass to improve utilization on these sites and to improve habitat and forage for wildlife.” According to Smith, he asked Supervisor Neitzke again if grass was a hazardous fuel and the response was “in the springtime, yes.”
When asked how burning improves wildlife habitat, Neitzke answered, “I don’t know the answer to that.”
As the conversation in the meeting continued, Smith said that directors urged the USFS, in the future, to allow producers more flexibility in their grazing rotations so that they can utilize the crested wheat grass early rather than burning it when it becomes mature and less palatable.
The directors also commented, in the meeting, that the USFS’s planned study to determine what caused the fire to burn out of control, is a waste of time and taxpayer dollars. “The way this fire got out of control is the conditions were a drought, the winds were blowing, and you implemented a fire plan without your fire expert on hand. I don’t think a study needs to be done to determine why this fire got out on control,” said Director Wade Henderson, in the meeting. “We asked them … please don’t, (burn) because we heard the weather report. We woke up the next morning and figured you would not because the conditions didn’t warrant it. For the burn it is a real simple answer on why this fire got out of control, if you light enough fires under those conditions one of them is going to do it. It was just a matter of time. So studying that is not going to get you anywhere,” Henderson added during the meeting.
Wayne Henderson, who serves as a Perkins County Commissioner asked the supervisor if the forest service would abide by a burn ban, should the commission decide to enact one. “The way that I have done that in the past is working together rather than one of us going out on a limb and putting a burn ban in place I’d rather work at our level, the state level, county level as to when the ban should be put in place,” responded Supervisor Neitzke.
“We invite additional suggestions and approaches from your staff that may help us to reimburse ranchers for their loss,” read a paper distributed by the Grasslands Supervisor’s office after the fire.
In response to the paper, Smith commented to Neitzke during the meeting, “we are going to hold you to your word.”