Idaho: Some ranchers can’t access cattle in Moose fire |

Idaho: Some ranchers can’t access cattle in Moose fire

By Heather Smith Thomas for Tri-State Livestock News

The Moose Fire began Sunday, July 17 five miles southwest of North Fork on the Salmon River, and is believed to be human-caused. As of mid-September it was the largest active wildfire in the continental U.S. having burned more than 131,000 acres on the west side of the river. Many people living along the river and tributaries have been evacuated.

At one time there were more than 1,400 firefighters—with crews from many states—trying to control the fire and keep it from jumping the river and the highway, and hoping to halt it before it got to the watershed above town. Helicopter crews were dipping water from the river to dump on the fire, but some days the smoke was too thick, impairing visibility for flying. Early on, a tragic incident claimed the lives of two pilots when their helicopter crashed into the river.

With hot days, no rain, and high winds, the fire continues to grow. It is not expected to be controlled until end of October, when Mother Nature may put it out with possible rain/snow.

Property owners along the river, and ranchers who run cattle on U.S. Forest Service permits in those mountains have been severely impacted. Those who have cattle in the Moose Creek area have not been allowed to try to get their cattle out because of risk to human life, but some cattle have drifted out on their own.

Jay Smith, a rancher on Carmen Creek and past president of Idaho Cattlemen’s Association, grazes cattle in that area. “I have a permit there, and some private property; we have six acres and a cabin on Moose Creek. Wind blew fire toward our cabin the very first day. It split before it got there and went around the cabin, but after the big blow-up on September 7 (with strong winds that grew the fire another 1,500 acres that day), we haven’t been back, so we’re not sure if it’s still there,” he says.

That day, a plume of smoke rose more than 50,000 feet and thick smoke engulfed the Salmon and Lemhi River valleys before nightfall—with flames visible on the horizon above town as the fire crested the ridge only 3 miles away. Many people took photos that night–of flames coming over the ridge. In days that followed, fire crept over the ridge toward the Fairgrounds—where one of the fire camps is located–and ranches along the river east of town. Many of those people had to evacuate.

“If I were to comment about the Forest Service and Incident Management teams on this fire, the point I’d make is inconsistency. Our range permit normally runs until October 10th and they ended our permit August 10th but won’t let us bring our cattle home. The Incident Command, another branch of the same Agency, told us the fire comes first and with the roads closed we can’t go up there,” says Smith.

Cherie McFarland, who is part of a large family ranching operation, says that when the fire first started in that area, they got their horses out, but haven’t been up there since. “We don’t know where our cows are. We’ve been told we’ll be fined $5,000 if we go up in there so we’ve just stayed away. When some of the cows wander down, we put them in a field along the river, where we have 40 acres, and truck them home. We’ve been trucking them home a few at a time,” she says.

“Cattle naturally head for the meadows and are pretty good at surviving, but if they get trapped, they can’t get out,” Cherie says. A few weeks ago the fire wasn’t expanding as quickly and people had hopes it might be contained; some ranchers thought it might be safe to go find their cattle, but the officials would not allow it, and then the fire blew up again.

“Range pasture is not a situation where you can get by with zero management,” says Smith. “When we can’t take care of cattle, we don’t know whether they have feed or water. Are they in harm’s way? Are half of them dead? This is very frustrating.”

At the beginning of the fire, ranchers were told to stage their cattle in Moose Meadow because it was the safest spot. “We put a bunch of cattle there and they stayed until the grass was gone in that meadow and then some started coming home. At the same time, the fire was coming at us from North Fork and across that face of the mountain–moving south toward town–and firefighters were back-burning to try to keep the fire from jumping the highway and going up the other side of the river,” he says.

“That did not go well; the back burns got away from them and burned a lot of our range country. One day I saw that their plan for the next day was to burn a back fire over our main trail, which was the only way out for those cattle they had us put in Moose Meadow–and the cattle would be trapped. I met with the Incident Command at 10 a.m. and he said he understood our situation and would have the back fire stop right there. At 2 p.m. I drove down there, and firefighters are burning our trail! I threw a fit, and they thought I had no business complaining. I told them I’d met with their boss 4 hours earlier and he promised me this wasn’t going to happen. The guy in command wanted to verify my story, so he called his boss. He then said that I was right, but it was already too late. This was another example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing,” Smith says.

There was another wind event and the fire blew up again the next day. There’s no way to know how many cattle may have perished. “The good thing is that the cows know their way home and if given a chance they will come home. If we’re unable to manage the range by moving cattle to fresh pastures and keeping salt and water available, they drift home. At this point we have a significant portion of our cattle home,” says Smith.

There have been some losses. “We have fewer calves coming in with those cows than we turned out, with more dry cows than usual. This is wolf country so we don’t know if the losses are due to wolves or fire; we just have statistically fewer calves. I don’t know about cow losses because it will be awhile before they all come home or we are allowed to go looking for them.”

The cows that came home early had to go into pastures and hayfield aftermath that’s normally saved for grazing in September-October. “We didn’t have any time to plan. We had to come home to meadows in July and August,” says Smith. There’s no extra pasture available. Lemhi County is 93 percent federal land, with very little private land. Most ranchers in these valleys depend on BLM and Forest Service allotments for summer grazing. With 25,000 to 30,000 cows in the county, there is no excess pasture.

Ranchers share frustration over forest management

In 2021 Jay Smith hosted the Governor’s trail ride, starting at their cabin—almost exactly a year before this catastrophic fire started. “Wolves and fuel loads were issues discussed. This fire is the ugliest, most hurtful ‘I told you so’ that we can imagine—to have this happen just a year after I warned them about the danger. I pointed to all those dead trees and said that 30 years of zero management is not the answer.” We need to break the cycle of fuel buildup and devastating fires.

“I don’t mean to be political, but after they swore Bill Clinton into office the Forest Service and BLM quit selling timber,” says Smith. Rural communities in timbered areas had a thriving timber industry up to that point, with many sawmills, keeping forests thinned and providing a healthy economy. Salmon had 5 sawmills, but they were put out of business when timber harvest halted. Even firewood cutting and permits for harvesting posts and poles have been curtailed.

“Lemhi County used to self-fund our school system and now we rely on federal money in lieu of taxes because we don’t have a tax base anymore; we are not harvesting timber or utilizing our resources,” Smith says. “Instead we let them burn, and spend billions of taxpayer dollars to fight fires, which are often difficult or impossible to halt.”

With dry conditions and heavy fuel loads, these become catastrophic wildfires. There are also many human caused fires, and the Moose fire sadly falls into this category.

“The official word is that it is ‘still being investigated’ but I got the most honest answers the very first day, when I asked the man who was doing structure protection on our cabin what was going on. He told me it was a campfire down river, and that they had photographs of license plates and knew who it was—though it is not yet official. He also told me we needed to brace ourselves because this fire was going to burn all season because they would not be able to control it,” Smith says.

The main efforts for control have been to try to keep the fire from coming over the ridges toward Salmon, to protect that watershed for the town’s water supply. “That’s been their priority; they let the fire burn all our good cattle country,” he says.

“They did put in one fire line a year ago, but the fire jumped it last Wednesday. They had that ridge strung with hoses and sprinklers for many weeks, then two weeks ago they figured the fire was moving west, they rolled up the hoses and took them home. They figured the fire was going the other way, and so did I, then the wind changed,” Smith says.

The Forest Service has rules that these areas can’t be grazed for two years following a fire. “So our big question is what the next two years will look like and whether we’ll have to reduce cow numbers,” he says. “Challenges are always a part of the cattle business, but catastrophic fires are something we shouldn’t have to contend with.“



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