Severe drought conditions throughout much of Colorado and Wyoming this year were felt directly by managers of the Medicine Bow/Routt national forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland, as well as by grazing permittees.
The exceptionally low snowpack during the winter of 2011-12 was a stark contrast to the near-record snowpack from the 2010 season. As a result, national forests experienced an earlier-than-usual start to the fire season, and conditions were primed for large, complex fires. By early July, four large wildland fires burned nearly 120,000 acres of rangeland vegetation and dozens of miles of grazing allotment fences on the Medicine Bow National Forest.
Although large fires did not occur on the Routt National Forest, drought still was part of our collective realities. It was only after summer rains provided much-needed relief that fire restrictions were lifted on the Routt National Forest in the second week of August. Meanwhile, the lack of early precipitation took its toll on vegetation growth. Local permittees faced forage production levels and reduced or dried-up water sources that could not support their herds for a full season of use. This meant that they needed to reduce either their livestock numbers or the length of the grazing season. Each operation is unique, and the measures employed ranged from some operators voluntarily resting their allotments to others reducing their numbers voluntarily. Some were required to remove their animals early when conditions worsened.
As difficult as 2012 was for local stock growers, it could have been worse. Grazing permittees affected by the fires in Wyoming lost some or all of their allotted forage for at least the balance of the current season. Depending on site-specific fire impacts, conditions may be unsuitable for sustainable livestock grazing while the forage base recovers in some grazing allotments. While the longer-term effects remain to be seen, some ranchers were faced with the immediate dilemma of selling all or part of their herd. This is a difficult reality for livestock producers affected by natural disasters like drought and fire.
The U.S. Forest Service multiple-use mandate provides for many private uses of public lands. However, our mission of sustaining the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations sometimes requires difficult decisions. This is particularly true when the livelihoods of our partners may be affected. Although such decisions are guided by longstanding laws, regulations and policies that are rooted in science, they are seldom easy and are made with careful deliberation.
Just as private interests must cope with uncontrollable external influences, public land managers also must evaluate changed conditions and adapt accordingly. While we are optimistic that 2013 will bring sufficient precipitation to help alleviate current drought conditions, we understand that external influences continually will challenge our mission. With continued cooperation and support from our public and partners, these challenges will continue to be met.
Larry Sandoval is a public affairs specialist for the Routt National Forest.