Steamboat Springs Cattle and sheep ranchers in Northwest Colorado face the possibility there won't be adequate grass for their livestock to graze on public lands this summer.
David Tubb of the U.S. Forest Service said Wednesday night there is a chance his agency will have to pull livestock off grazing allotments in the forest in South Routt this summer. Tubb is a member of the range staff with the Yampa Ranger District of the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest.
"If conditions don't improve, they're going to have to come off," Tubb said. "I don't want people to be surprised. They need to plan for what they're going to do."
He was speaking to an audience of agriculturists attending a drought workshop hosted by the Routt County Cooperative Extension office at Olympian Hall.
If grazing is curtailed on public lands this summer, it will be to protect the resource in the midst of a second dry summer. Erik Taylor, a rangeland management specialist with the Hahns Peak/Bears Ears Ranger District in Steamboat Springs, said his office will do its best to find ways for grazing permittees to keep their livestock on grass.
"It's not a decision we're going to make lightly," Taylor said. "We're going to make sure we've used every available option for them to stay on there."
He oversees grazing permits in the National Forest from Rabbit Ears Pass north to Wyoming.
Taylor added that if it becomes necessary to pull cattle off grazing units, their owners will be credited for the portion of the grazing fees they weren't allowed to benefit from.
John Husband of the Bureau of Land Management's Little Snake district office in Craig said he thinks many ranchers whose livestock graze on BLM lands will self-regulate their use of public lands this summer.
"Grazing permittees won't be out there to graze something that isn't there," Husband said.
His office manages land just west of Steamboat, but most of the grazing units it oversees are west of Craig. Husband's office sent out cautionary letters to permittees as early as March. He thinks some people will be confronted with the bad news when they move cattle from high country grazing units to lower elevation at the end of summer.
"There's not going to be anything to come back to in the fall," Husband predicted.
The BLM is allowing cattle ranchers to file for "nonuse" of their grazing permits while retaining full rights to those permits in the future. Already, 55 major permittees among the 145 ranchers who graze on BLM land in Middle Park and North Park have agreed to limit their grazing activities this summer. In aggregate, they will reduce grazing by about 41 percent.
The grasses that cattle graze on depend upon precipitation, but the hay they will eat this winter depends on the water flowing in the rivers of Northwest Colorado.
The amount of water flowing through the Yampa River this spring peaked at only about 28 percent of normal, but it's easily among the healthiest streams in the state. That doesn't mean Northwest Colorado doesn't face drought-related difficulties this summer.
"We're looking at a very difficult situation this summer unless we get some rain," Bob Plaska told the farmers and ranchers who attended the drought conference. "I think we have to be ready for a drought situation. If it rains, that's great."
Plaska is a state water engineer who oversees administration of water rights on the Yampa, White and North Platte rivers.
Plaska said current streamflows in those rivers closely parallel the record drought year of 1977.
In 1977, the Yampa Valley had normal precipitation. This year's rainfall story has yet to unfold.