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100,000 Cows Freeze to Death in Freak Record-Breaking Snowstorm

100,000 Cows Freeze to Death in Freak Record-Breaking Snowstorm

Tens of thousands of cattle perished in a freak snowstorm during the first weekend in October in Wyoming, Montana and South Dakota. That’s incredible, and yet the story is getting surprisingly little attention.

An unexpectedly early and brutal blizzard struck states from the Northern High Plains to the Rocky Mountains on October 4th and 5th, leaving up to five feet of snow on the ground. The storm’s howling winds proved to be a death knell for an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 defenseless cattle.

First the poor creatures were pelted with rain, 12 hours of it, until their coats were waterlogged. Then came 48 hours of snow, 60 to 70 mph winds and freezing temperatures. Cattle wandered, cold, wet, covered with ice and confused. They huddled together at fence lines for warmth. Snow drifted to heights of 10 feet or more. Eventually, the cattle dropped where they stood, by the thousands, and the snow buried them.

In the aftermath, bodies were everywhere. Black hooves and legs stuck up out of the snow, grotesquely marking the spots where cows and calves finally collapsed and froze to death.

“They’re in the fence line, laying alongside the roads,” Martha Wierzbicki, emergency management director for Butte County, S.D., told the Billings Gazette. “It’s really sickening.”

The unfortunate cows were ill-equipped to face this sudden snow because they hadn’t grown their winter coats yet. Compounding the problem, the weather’s been good recently, so ranchers hadn’t yet moved the cattle to their wintertime grazing locations which tend to have more gullies and trees. The cows were still in their open, flat summer pastures at this time of year, which is normally as it should be.

Heavy, sustained blizzards during the first week of October just don’t happen in South Dakota and Wyoming. Only days earlier, temperatures had been in the 80s. The odd weather, dubbed “Winter Storm Atlas,” caught ranchers flatfooted.

It’s not that they didn’t want to take care of their cattle. They did — those animals are their livelihood, after all. This storm was a record-breaker, however. It defied weather predictions and hit with unexpected force and longevity. Ranchers simply didn’t have time to move their cattle to more protected areas.

“It’s bad. It’s really bad. I’m the eternal optimist and this is really bad,” 60-year-old rancher Gary Cammack told the Associated Press. “The livestock loss is just catastrophic…. It’s pretty unbelievable. It’s the worst early season snowstorm I’ve seen in my lifetime.”

See news coverage about the deaths of these cattle here:

“It’s not uncommon at this point to find cattle that are five miles from where they should be,” rancher David Uhrig told the Billings Gazette. “Which doesn’t seem like a lot, but to drift five miles in a storm — that’s a lot.”

The devastation affects approximately 6,000 ranching operations. Some ranchers have yet to find any of their cattle alive, according to reports. Experts are calling it South Dakota’s worst economic crisis in decades. Sadly, many of these cows had just been brought to this area from Texas to escape drought conditions there.

With the federal government in shutdown mode, the problem is made infinitely worse. The employees of federal agencies which the affected ranchers would turn to for information and advice are furloughed. They want to help but they can’t.

It’s worth noting that some federal workers were allowed to do their jobs during this epic snowstorm, and did so admirably. When roads became impassible, dedicated employees of the National Weather Service in Rapid City, S.D., actually hiked to work in the blizzard. They remained at their office around the clock for the entire weekend in order to get lifesaving weather information out to the public. Of course, they weren’t being paid at the time and still aren’t.

In the absence of federal government help in this crisis, all the ranchers can do for the moment is sort out whose cattle are whose and get the carcasses disposed of before they rot where they lie.

Some wonder whether the arrival of a storm this catastrophic so early in the season is yet another red flag waving frantically to alert us that climate change is real and is happening all around us. For example, ClimateCentral.com indicates in a response to a comment about this snowstorm, “[U]nusually heavy snowstorms like this one, which broke all-time records, are not inconsistent with what we’re already seeing due to manmade global warming—increased extreme precip events.”

This bizarre weather incident may simply be an aberration. Odd things happen, after all. On the other hand, last year at this time, South Dakota was worried about drought conditions.

Could Winter Storm Atlas be yet another symptom of the inexorable advance of climate change? Is wacky, unpredictable killer weather becoming more and more common, or are we just noticing it more these days?

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Photo credit: Thinkstock

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235 comments

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6:54AM PDT on Jun 16, 2014

so sad but thanks for sharing, RIP

9:58PM PST on Jan 3, 2014

This saddens me. It is sickening. I cannot even imagine what a torture this was to have happen. Jut outrageous, no sense in it. I can't believe that they were not prepared for the weather. If you have animals, you need to be prepared to take care of them. Please do not let them suffer the way these 100,000 cows obviously did. What are we teaching our children to let something like this happen. Then we want to know why some kids grow up and don't respect animals and that in turn sometimes leads to crimes and violence toward humans. Please be responsible. Take care of the livestock. Treat it with respect.

9:45PM PST on Jan 3, 2014

David B. I sure hope you don't live in a house, because guess what used to be in place of your house? Wildlife! So why don't you do what you beg the farmers to do and move out of the comfort of your home, tear it down and give it back to the animals?

3:02PM PST on Dec 18, 2013

hopefully this hits them in there pocket book bigtime and they have to move off the land and return it to the animals to who it rightfully belongs.

3:00PM PST on Dec 18, 2013

considering what these states are doing to the wolf population,i can't loose any sleep over it.

2:47AM PST on Nov 25, 2013

I don't have any respect for "ranchers" anyway. Their end goals are the horrible deaths of the cows and calves they claim to be so fond of protecting.. and they're wildlife killers and environment destroyers. They can all go bankrupt and homeless for all I care.

12:40PM PST on Nov 13, 2013

This story sickens me, the mass slow suffering of 100,000 cows. How dare these cattle people say they were caught off guard! Or maybe they are all listening to Fox news and still refusing to believe there is anything wrong with the climate. The facts are, men on horseback can move herds of cattle pretty darn quick. And I noticed the article said the cattle were not yet at their winter area of more trees. I'm in southern New Jersey. The cattle graze on vast acres, yes, but winter and summer return to their barns at night if they choose, And just looking at the farms, 2-3 men on horses could have all cows to the barn quickly if the cows didn't come in and a bad storm is predicted. HAVE THESE MIDWEST RANCHERS HEARD OF THE WEATHER CHANNEL? There is NO EXCUSE other than human error, human lack of common sense, human carelessness that caused these animals to suffer so cruel a death. When you own animals, any animals, it is your responsibility to take care of them. They cannot do it themselves.....PERIOD!!!!!

9:29AM PST on Nov 11, 2013

This saddens me to my most inner core. This is such a difficult story to have read. My heart aches for all those poor cattle who most definitely died a horrible and slow death.

8:44AM PDT on Oct 21, 2013

wonder whether this was a more humane end to them than their eventual slaughter

10:01AM PDT on Oct 20, 2013

OMG! How incredibly horrible. Those poor sweet cows died a terrible death. I hate reading stories like this one.

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Julie M. Rodriguez Julie M. Rodriguez is an arts, green living, and political writer based in San Mateo, CA. Her work... more
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